Nathan J. Micinski
Submitted to the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF ARTS
Ellen Berry, Advisor
All Rights Reserved iii
Ellen Berry, Advisor
Subcultural theory is traditionally rooted in notions of social deviance or resistance. The criteria for determining who or what qualifies as subcultures, and the most effective ways to study them, are based on these assumptions. This project seeks to address these traditional modes of studying subcultures and discover ways in which their modification may lead to new understandings and ways of studying subcultures in the contemporary moment. This will be done by suggesting a change in the criteria of examining subcultures from that of deviance or resistance to identification with a collection of images, symbols, rituals, and narratives. The importance of this distinction is the ability to utilize the insights that studying subcultures can offer while avoiding the faults inherent in speaking for or at a subculture rather than with or from it.
Beyond addressing theoretical concerns, this thesis aims to apply notions of subcultural theory to study the online community of Reddit, in particular, a subset known as r/trees–a virtual repository for those images, symbols, rituals, and narratives of cannabis subculture. R/trees illustrates the life and vibrancy of a unique subcultural entity, which to this point has evaded a cultural studies analysis. To that end, this project advocates for the importance of the cultural studies approach to analyzing cannabis subculture and further, to insert the findings of this study into that gap in the literature. This thesis will demonstrate both the relevance of this cultural studies approach, in addition to revealing how this study and its subject, r/trees, are reflective of an engaged cultural studies. iv
I would like to thank my thesis committee for their support, feedback, and absolute positivity during this project. To Rob Sloane, for innumerable discussions over lunch, helping me to develop, shape, and hone this project from its very beginning. To Dr. Ellen Berry, for unfailing encouragement of my most passionate academic pursuits.
I would also like to give my sincerest thanks to Debbie Ribera, the sounding board for this entire project, my inspiration to consider and reconsider my fundamental assertions, and the only person who seems to know this project better than I.
TABLE OF CONTENTS Page
INTRODUCTION ...... 1
CHAPTER 1: THE NEED...... 9
Part 1 – Intellectual Work vs. Academic Work ...... 9
Part 2 – Who is Talking About Cannabis?...... 19
CHAPTER 2: SUBCULTURAL FOUNDATIONS...... 31
Why Subcultural Theory?...... 31
Using Subcultural Theory: Informing a Discussion of Cannabis Culture ...... 32
The Normalization Thesis: Addressing the “Mainstream” and Social Acceptance . 39
A Redefinition of Subculture...... 44
CHAPTER 3: A CASE STUDY OF REDDIT...... 52
The Communities of Reddit...... 53
Subreddits ...... 54
r/trees: Reddit as a Repository ...... 57
The Subcultural Repository: The Process of Uploading and Downloading...... 59
The Cannabis Culture: The Democracy of Authenticity...... 67
Handling the Imbalance – The Screening Process...... 70
CONCLUSIONS ...... 74
Networked Mediation: Engaged Cultural Studies ...... 75
BIBLIOGRAPHY ...... 81 1
I smoke cannabis. I haven’t always and I’m not sure I always will. As it stands now, it is a small facet of my life, not consisting of a regular activity, nor one that affects my day to day rhythm. But I have, I still do from time to time, and most importantly, I display a personal affinity in aligning myself with the culture surrounding cannabis. I find its debates both medicinal and legal to be fascinating, I enjoy watching a good “stoner” movie, and I love the music of Bob Marley. Despite this, I have a hard time writing those words to this page. Aside from risks I feel in admitting it I also feel the weight of stigma still attached to the culture.
Trends have pushed cannabis towards social acceptance, however users such as myself still find themselves with lingering feelings of social deviance, of being outcasts, rebels, the rule breakers.
I say all this is order to place myself squarely in the center of the material that I will be discussing in the following pages. My motivation to begin this study was sparked by my own mixed emotions of desire to associate with a culture while simultaneously feeling discouraged from doing so. I began seeking out research and scholarship that would help to describe these feelings as well as the nature and status of the culture itself. This led me to classic works on subcultural theory and their emphasis on drug cultures and also to more recent sociological works on the status of drug abuse in the country. It became clear to me early on that hardly any of these works focused on cannabis culture exclusively, and more so, that no scholar, author, or researcher was personally associating themselves with it. In this way, my personal associations with cannabis culture inspired me to want to explore and document a part of my own life from the inside out. 2
The cannabis culture that I describe myself as associating with is certainly not a homogeneous one. While the underlying facet of unification is obviously consumption of cannabis, in one form or another, there is still an incredible amount of variety amongst members of this subculture. It is safe to assume that many users do not personally identify as a member of the subculture at all because it is (seemingly) so loosely organized with varying degrees of use and a wide range of motivations for that use. These motivations include, but are certainly not limited to, medical reasons, legalization activism, or simply for pleasure. Despite the diversity inherent in such a wide ranging (sub)culture, particular images certainly come to mind when thinking of a unified "cannabis culture." Most likely, these have to do with stereotypes of the typical "stoner": someone who wears loose, flowing clothing, maybe has unkempt hair or dreadlocks, lacks motivation and drive in life, and smokes away all his days while listening to the music of Bob Marley. This image, while stereotypical, certainly persists and exists as a way to participate in the cannabis (sub)culture, though not the only one. My research is informed by a diverse scope of cannabis users, from suburban parents, to medical doctors, to students and scholars, to well-established and highly functioning professionals. As will become a major crux of my argument in the analysis to come, these wide-ranging ways to participate in the cannabis
(sub)culture all have equal potential to be valid, so long as the individual identifying with an image of a subculture chooses to do so. Granted, this does not occur in the absence of heated debate over what should constitute the genuine and authentic nature of any particular subculture, but in the case of cannabis culture, an established collection of symbols, images, and narratives are available for identification with. Exploring the ways in which these symbols, images, and narratives are created, preserved, and applied to individuals' lives is a central goal of this project. 3
Beyond associating myself with this (for now) loosely defined cannabis culture, I also associate myself with being a cultural studies scholar. As such, I hope to produce work that is in the spirit of the academic discipline in which I’ve found a home. To that end, I strive to acknowledge my own positionality in regard to the subject material present in this work. I do not deny my personal relation to the content that will fill the pages to come in the hopes that it will provide a sense of honesty, disclosure, and legitimacy to the claims that I make. In fact, this is of the utmost importance to me as a scholar, intellectual, and academic. As will be explored in more depth later, I find fault in the methods of study that strive to have its researchers remain as detached and removed as possible from their objects of study. This, to me, slips into a dangerous trap of speaking for the Other–a trap whose mitigation I hold to be a fundamental task and responsibility of cultural studies. As remedy, a theory and practice of engaged cultural studies is one that I seek to manifest here.
The perennial debate over what constitutes engaged cultural studies is a dominant one in both the discipline and my own path as an academic. Much of my time as a scholar has been spent sifting through the issues of what the field and discipline of cultural studies should seek to achieve, what its intentions and motivations are, and the best ways to enact a practice of theory that is applicable to the real world. Ultimately, I’ve learned that what this truly means is not limited to the confines of the academy, or the proverbial ivory tower, but is instead something of a world-view–a way of life. Its theory can be refined and articulated via the tools acquired only by a stay in the academy but at the end of the day is something that must be lived. To this end, I hope to live out my own subjectivity in the context of this study.
I believe that cultural studies is inherently political in this way. The way I understand the phrase does not necessarily (though it can) mean Political–that is to say, politics with a capital 4
“P.” This Politics is grounded in overt activism, taking the side of Democrats or Republicans (or neither), soliciting petition signatures, etc. However, politics can also mean being political, in the sense of taking a stand where no one else will, admitting an undesired position in relation to the topic of study, or, as will be shown in the discussion of online communities, engaging in dialogue concerning self-presentation and representation. In her recent anthology, The Pot Book,
Julie Holland, M.D., claims that in regards to the politics of cannabis culture, "Outing ourselves as otherwise law-abiding and responsible employees and employers, parents, citizens, and most of all, taxpayers is a good first step. Many of us are tired of being outlaws. We'd like to pay our
'sin taxes' and stop hiding."1 Answering this call is a political act, and in that spirit, I will attempt here to situate myself within the fields and subcultural-scapes I find myself. I will not claim false objectivity, but will embrace and acknowledge the legitimacy, as well as limitations, of my subjectivity. In this way, I strive to make this study engaged in a political sense–not being afraid to acknowledge my own positionality as a cannabis user and centering the experiences of users who refuse the “outlaw” or “deviant” label ascribed to them by the dominant culture.
In the context of the study at hand, I see a niche to be filled by the cultural studies approach. This involves both discussions of subcultural theory and how it can be utilized to study cannabis culture. Current discussions of cannabis culture are disproportionally dominated by either medical and legal discourses or, closer to the realm of cultural studies, by sociological studies. Due to the nature of that discipline, and the preconceived notions through which it approaches the topic, I see a large part of the discussion to be missing. Setting aside medical and legal arguments and resisting the urge to classify all drug users as social deviants, cannabis
1 Julie Holland, M.D., ed., The Pot Book (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010), 348. 5 consumption is an activity that is taking place in a substantial part of the population.2 While the medical and legal arguments may be interesting to many people involved in the subculture their results are not stopping the subculture from existing: the popular culture representations of this subculture give testament to that, if for no reason other than the fact that there is a marketable population for whom to produce TV shows and movies centered on the topic of cannabis.
Without reducing this subculture to statistics for analysis I believe there is much to be observed and learned about it considering its prevalence and momentum.
Rather than trying to determine ways through which to reduce participation in this culture or provide solutions to a researcher-determined “problem,” I believe it is worth taking the time to study this subculture as it stands. Of course, this is not to take a false snapshot of a subculture that is constantly in evolution, as all subcultures are. Rather, it is to provide legitimacy to a subculture that not only sees itself as such but also wants to expand its influence to the larger population, albeit on its own terms. This is the gap in research I hope to begin filling on several fronts: firstly, by making the claim for the importance of engaged cultural studies itself; secondly, by taking on the progression of subcultural theory and pushing it into new conceptions, and; thirdly, by demonstrating its usefulness and relevance by means of a qualitative case study of the online community of Reddit and a particular subset of it designated for cannabis
Though I recognize gaps in the research to fill, I also would like to acknowledge up front those other places in which I will fall short. Firstly, this study will only be political in the lower- case "p" sense previously described. I do not attempt here to take a stance on the issues of
2 Julie Holland, M.D., ed., The Pot Book (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010), 2; Andrew Golub, ed., The Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2012), 45; Ibid., 104. 6 cannabis legalization, medical validity, or social “problem.” As mentioned, those areas already have a substantial amount of literature and I will not seek to overlap their findings here.
Secondly, due to the restrictions of studying online communities, I have limited legitimacy here in discussing the issues of race that are associated with studies of drug cultures. In my research, I have become acutely aware of the disproportional number of minority population arrests and rates of incarceration for cannabis possession,3 the ease with which white drug dealers can operate,4 and the racial associations with the crafted term "marijuana."5 Despite this, the scope of my study is restricted to the places and resources in which I'm able to fully immerse myself and claim first-hand knowledge in studying. I entrust these other segments of studying cannabis culture to scholars better equipped to address such important issues and hope to approach my study in a way that does not ignore or circumvent them, but adds a separate, unique aspect to the dialogue.
To elaborate on my method for this more specifically, I intend to use auto-ethnographic and online ethnographic methods to mine the online community of Reddit, and, more specifically, a segment of it dedicated to cannabis (sub)culture, r/trees, for evidence of how the community provides an example of a constructed subculture, how it constructs this subculture, and how it preserves this subculture. This will be done by analyzing the nature of Reddit itself as an online forum as well as specific examples of textual posts and the ensuing comment threads on r/trees. Although I have participated in this community prior to this study, I am what is known
3 Harry Levine, “The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests,” The Nation, 18 November 2013, 18.
4 A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold, Dorm Room Drug Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2010).
5 David Malmo-Levine, “Recent History,” in The Pot Book, ed. Julie Holland, M.D. (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010), 31. 7 in the community as a "lurker"–one who observes the content of the community but does not engage it. I have not positioned myself publicly as a researcher online, nor have I elicited any direct feedback for this project by posting or engaging in interviews, conversations, comment threads, or direct dialogue. I am aware that this exposes me to the critique that I have not been as
“engaged” in the subculture of interest as I claim to promote, but my reasons for this will, hopefully, be illuminated and made legitimate by the end of this study. In preview, I contend that legitimate identification and association with a subculture by an individual need not depend on a direct give and take from the subculture. Through processes of what I will call "uploading" and
"downloading" from a subcultural repository, I aim to demonstrate that identification with and participation in a subculture is dependent on a set of collected images, symbols, rituals, and narratives rather than with the sentiments of a group of people.
This paper will begin with a discussion of the ways that I understand the field of cultural studies to function, its intuitions and desires, and the tenets it holds to be fundamental to an engaged version of itself (Ch. 1 - Part 1). From there I will move into the specific subjective space I find myself–a personal involvement and investment in cannabis (sub)culture. I have seen a major lack of scholarship from the discipline of cultural studies on the subject of cannabis
(sub)culture, and by a survey of relevant and current literature will demonstrate the need to address this lack (Ch. 1 - Part 2). Moving forward, I will explore a particular vein of theory within cultural studies–subculture theory–and its historical connection to cannabis (and drug) culture. Tracing the history of the field, its manifestations and transformations, I will end (Ch. 2) with a proposition for a new understanding of subcultural theory and a revised formulation for the study of subcultures themselves. To fully illuminate this theoretical framework, and to bring the study back into the realm of lived experience, as the intentions of engaged cultural studies so 8 clearly state, I will observe the case study of Reddit and its cannabis (sub)cultural community of r/trees (Ch. 3). By analyzing the content, discussions, and patterns of subcultural production
(uploading) and consumption (downloading) I will seek to visualize the subcultural theory presented in Ch. 2. The project will end by bringing the discussion full circle, and reiterating again the importance of engaged cultural studies and the reasons why both this project and the focus of its study are each attempts at producing the results heralded by an engaged cultural studies. 9
CHAPTER 1: THE NEED
With the intention of placing the motivations and aspirations of this work in context, the discussion must start from where I find myself as a scholar–in the field and discipline of cultural studies. The ways through which I've come to this study are by the route of cultural studies and debates that constitute its core. One of the most central of these concerns is the engaged nature of cultural studies and the ways in which that may manifest in the world. I will start this discussion then with an exploration of my own understandings of this difference between intellectual work and academic work and how that distinction has effects on the content of my study: cannabis culture.
Part 1 - Intellectual Work vs. Academic Work
The distinction that Stuart Hall makes between intellectual work and academic work is one that is a central feature to the debate over what cultural studies is and what it does.
Ostensibly, cultural studies as a discipline seeks to be “engaged,” a field of study that is able to transcend both its disciplinary boundaries and the walls of the institution. It is a field that seeks to produce intellectuals, not academics in the traditional sense. This is a task fraught with discrepancies and hypocrisies though, as the theoretical work required to explain to ourselves what we do is a function inherently at odds with the desired end goals of putting that theory into practice. Spending time writing dense theoretical work that can only be deciphered using tools acquired via long and intense training within the institution of the academy is a task, on both ends, seemingly locked in the proverbial ivory tower. Regardless, this has not stopped many scholars from continuing the debate and producing material regarding what engaged cultural 10 studies should look like and how it should function. Drawing on the works of Simon During and
Lawrence Grossberg, I hope to illustrate the general picture painted by scholars of what engaged and intellectual cultural studies is. From there, I will put these theoretical foundations into dialogue with the work of Manuel Castells who provides, albeit in hindsight, a roadmap for cultural studies in practice. Throughout these arguments, I will continue to clarify the difference between Hall’s intellectual and academic work. Further analysis of the two terms will help to specify what it means to perform “engaged” cultural studies and lay out a formula for I can merge my identity as a cultural studies scholar with my own experience with cannabis culture as a foundation from which to both write about and act out the change I wish to see in the world.
Simon During, who compiled and edited the anthology The Cultural Studies Reader, is a well-known and respected voice in the field. In his introduction to the book he traces the history of the field itself, originating in Great Britain in the 1950s6 to its solidification into the
Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in the 1970s,7 to the internationalization of the field in responses to the new right’s Thatcherism.8 Following this brief introduction to the origins and movements of the field, he then puts forth suggestions for future directions it might take and objectives it should consider. These arise out of “the expansion of cultural studies conceived of as a discrete mode of analysis”9 which results from cultural studies’
6 Simon During, “Introduction,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (New York: Routledge, 2007), 2.
7 Ibid., 3.
8 Ibid., 12-3.
9 Ibid., 25.
“status in the education system.”10 This is a distinct and separate event from the “general ‘turn to culture’ […] in the social sciences and humanities.”11 Because cultural studies as a discipline has secured a legitimate place in the academy (though not without substantial scrutiny) During suggests that its scholars take on an attitude and objective of “engaged cultural studies.” This is achieved through three tasks, which are to:
1) clearly articulate engaged cultural studies’ specific project; 2) to analyse the conditions which underpin the general turn to culture just described; 3) to develop strategies to maintain engaged cultural studies as a discrete formation inside the larger culture turn.12
All three of these objectives are concerned with primarily two essential functions to be considered “engaged” according to During. The first is being able to clearly, and academically, articulate what exactly it is that cultural studies does and the second is to carve out a unique space within the academy to secure a safe and long-term home for the discipline.
Elaborating more specifically on the first of these functions, During states, “engaged cultural studies is academic work (teaching, research, dissemination etc.) on contemporary culture from non-elite or counter-hegemonic perspectives (‘from below’) with an openness to the culture’s reception and production in everyday life, or, more generally, its impact on life trajectories.”13 He continues that:
[I]t does not simply “teach the conflicts” […] – that is, it does not neutrally present the debates over canons, cultural value, multiculturalism, identity-thinking and so on for students, rather it aims to produce knowledge from perspectives lost to and in dominant public culture, and to listen to far off or marginalized voices … [E]ngaged cultural
10 Ibid., 25.
12 Ibid., 26.
13 Ibid. 12
studies also examines its own constitutive borders and divisions – or more simply, the relation between what it includes and what it excludes.14
In this spirit, the study at hand will seek to incorporate those marginalized voices of the stigmatized cannabis (sub)culture and further, to be proactively self-reflective of what that includes and what it excludes. Concerning the nature of the discipline as a whole, once these ground rules of cultural studies have been established, and it has been clearly articulated what the discipline seeks to study and produce, the next task is to solidify that unique space within the institution. Though During does not specifically call for this, and in fact actually promotes a form of “multidisciplinarity” which will be explained momentarily, he ultimately falls victim to the perception that cultural studies depends on an academically valid place within the institution for legitimacy.
Expanding further on the second of the functions of “engaged” cultural studies, concerning establishing a place within the academy, During states that:
[I]t is best regarded as an area to work in alongside others, usually more highly institutionalized disciplines – Spanish, geography, politics, economics, literature … whatever. The point is not so much to dismantle disciplinary boundaries as to be able to move across them; the aim is to transport methods and attitudes from cultural studies to other disciplines where they are appropriate, but also to be able to let them go where they are not.15
Continuing, he says, “we need to think of cultural studies not as a traditional field or discipline, nor as a mode of interdisciplinarity, but as what I will call a field within multidisciplinarity.”16 In one respect, During is certainly promoting a role for engaged cultural studies that is substantially different from traditional institutionalized disciplines. Despite this, his conceptions of the role
14 Ibid., 27.
15 Ibid., 28-9.
16 Ibid., 28. 13 that cultural studies is to play in the academy is based on just that–a role to play within an already existing academy. Here then we see Hall’s distinction between intellectual work and academic work taking shape. Considering the etymology of “academic,” it is clear that this type of work inherently takes place within an “academy.” While During’s multidisciplinarity is a noble objective, it ultimately fails to address issues surrounding the institutionalization of knowledge and the divide that this wedges between academics advocating for things like equality, inclusion, and democracy and those intellectuals who are actually practicing these ideas on the streets. This leaves During’s framework for an “engaged” cultural studies feeling rather detached and isolated from the real world and still rooted within the confines of the academy.
In contrast to the potential division between theory and practice inherent in During,
Lawrence Grossberg provides a model that seeks to solve this discrepancy in his book Cultural
Studies in the Future Tense. Immediately, Grossberg sets about defining cultural studies as something that should not be limited by institutional and disciplinary boundaries. He claims in reference to the direction the field should take that, “Cultural studies would have to be interdisciplinary and antidisciplinary; it would need to transform the disciplines even as it drew upon them, and it would have to be reflexive about the ways it accomplished this, becoming self- conscious about its own conditions of knowledge-production.”17 This is distinct from the multidisciplinarity that During promotes on the grounds that Grossberg has ultimately come to terms with the possibility of institutionalized academic disciplines being altered or destroyed.
Rather than cultural studies being a liaison between the disciplines, the cultural studies that
Grossberg is promoting actively seeks to alter, modify, and transform them.
17 Lawrence Grossberg, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 15. 14
Moving beyond the institutional and disciplinary role that cultural studies should play,
Grossberg also has a different conception of the scholar. Again harkening back to Hall,
Grossberg (whether intentionally or not) chooses to describe the cultural studies scholar as an intellectual rather than an academic. In his words:
I believe that the project of cultural studies, which binds different people and work together, involves a commitment to a particular practice of intellectual-political work, and to the claim that such intellectual work matters both inside and outside of the academy. Cultural studies is a way of inhabiting the position of scholar, teacher, artist, and intellectual, one way (among many) of politicizing theory and theorizing politics.18
This can be attributed to the fact that Grossberg sees the academic task of cultural studies (and by extension its scholars) as being inseparable from its lived practice. For this reason, again, the study at hand seeks to acknowledge how my own lived practice and positionality has informed the theory of my work and how I see that theory subsequently informing not only my own practices, but the practices of the subculture I identify with. Theory and practice are two essential parts of the same process: theory “must take a detour through the real, through the empirical context, in order to be able to go on theorizing.”19 In fact, theory should only exist to serve a better understanding and practice of lived reality. Exploring this idea further, Grossberg states,
“While cultural studies is committed to the necessity of theoretical work, it sees theory as a resource to be used strategically to respond to particular problematics, struggles, and contexts.
The measure of a theory’s truth is its ability to enable a better (re-)description of the context.”20
18 Ibid., 9.
19 Ibid., 25.
20 Ibid., 26-7.
Still, while promoting the necessity of theory’s ability to have a tangible and positive effect on lived realities, Grossberg’s analysis ultimately falls short in demonstrating that practicing cultural studies as the type of intellectual he advocates really does produce those effects. This is made clear in his concluding remarks to the discussion on the above material. In an optimistic, but unsatisfying, finale he says that:
[C]ultural studies continues to believe that its intellectual work matters, even if it is not our salvation. Cultural studies is not going to save the world, or even the university; rather, it is a modest proposal for a flexible and radically contextual intellectual-political practice. It attempts to produce the best knowledge possible in the service of making a better world. And as such, it may help us get a little further toward our goal of making the world a more just and equitable place for all people.21
While Grossberg is really just trying to make reasonable and practical promises about what cultural studies can (or cannot) do for the world, the result is that he paints an image of a cultural studies that is complicit in a limited potential of influence, a place that is safe in the academy from the grit of street level politics, so long as those scholars take their theory on an occasionally brief trip through reality. In contrast to this is the work of Manuel Castells and the social movements and protests he chronicles, who makes Grossberg’s dreams for what cultural studies could do a reality.
In his recent book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age,
Castells presents an argument for the immense potential of recent social movements including the Arab Spring and Occupy (Wall Street). He sees these movements as being facilitated by a newfound technological advantage which enables resistance to power structures to be organized in horizontal, democratic, and rhizomatic fashions that are compatible with their desired ends. He explains that, “This is the true revolutionary transformation: the material production of social
21 Ibid., 55. 16 change not from programmatic goals but from the networked experiences of the actors in the movement.”22 Beyond this, they are able to organize themselves in a leaderless fashion because,
“The horizontality of networks supports cooperation and solidarity while undermining the need for formal leadership" [emphasis in original].23 The role that this networked mediation can serve is a central factor in the coming analysis of the online community of Reddit. While there are certain caveats that prevent it from fully enacting a truly horizontal network, as Castells proposes, Reddit still enables subcultural communities to organize themselves in ways that are not based on external perceptions, but internal definitions.
Castells’ emphasis on material realities and the experiences of the actors are two aspects that set his ideas (and the movements) apart from the theoretical self-defining of During and
Grossberg. The social movements are essentially the lived realities that are theorized about by these scholars, acted out independent of leadership, direction, or even apparent influence from cultural studies. Ironically, Grossberg sets about describing how these social movements, like the ones described by Castells, “operate outside of the politics they oppose.”24 He explains that:
The social movements enact what is commonly referred to as a “prefigurative politics,” emphasizing principles of autonomy, nonheirarchy, and self-organization: the movements become their own object of desire. The practices of any social movement aim to produce the social movement itself, as a movement that actualizes an ontology of becoming.25
In this way, Grossberg seems to recognize that social movements arise and operate independent of cultural studies’ influence. This is curious, considering that the cultural studies Grossberg
22 Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 144.
23 Ibid., 225.
24 Lawrence Grossberg, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 256.
25 Ibid., 257.
17 envisions would have a direct effect on implementing change, like the kind sparked by these social movements, yet in our historically lived reality that connection and influence seems difficult to identify.
Although that connection between an ideal, lived, and engaged cultural studies and these historical social movements may be difficult to identify, I am personally not satisfied with letting it go unnoticed. Despite the evidence that social movements are capable of arising organically, rhizomatically, and autonomously I do not believe this is equal evidence for the lack of cultural studies’ influence on them. Since the spirit of the movements is their lived realities, then it must be noted that lived realities are only such to real people. And who are these real people? They are citizens, union members, waiters, salespeople, scholars, academics–they are intellectuals!
Castells makes this clear in regards to the Occupy Wall Street movement, acknowledging that,
“They were an educated group, with half of them holding a college degree, and many more having finished some college.”26 So too does Grossberg, drawing attention to the potential of cultural studies engaging with these movements, not in terms of co-opting or patronizing them, but in facilitating dialogue with them, and subsequently living out our theory. He reminds us that:
[S]uch ontological and autonomous theories and politics, which often do not see themselves operating under the sign of cultural studies, are an important interlocutor within the debates of contemporary cultural studies. Rather than seeing an unbridgeable distance between them and cultural studies, we should see the productive possibilities of that distance in the contemporary conjuncture.27
26 Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 167.
27 Lawrence Grossberg, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 257. 18
This sentiment is one I wholeheartedly agree with and hope to visualize through this study. The political intentions and actions of the subcultural community of r/trees act as one of these interlocutors. As will be demonstrated through an exploration of the ways that the subcultural community of r/trees organizes itself, and the images it projects, it can easily be considered one of Grossberg's groups that do not operate under the "sign of cultural studies" but clearly act out the end goals of cultural studies or, at the least, inform the discussion. I believe this to be an important way of reconciling academic work with intellectual work, of putting theory into practice, and of practice informing theory. 19
Part 2 - Who is Talking About Cannabis?
A survey of the available literature surrounding drug use and its cultures reveals a heavy emphasis on sociological-style studies that are primarily centered on conceptions of deviance.
This is true of both classic historical studies including Howard Becker’s Outsiders28 and Dick
Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style29 to more recent works like those of A. Rafik
Mohamed and Erik Fritsvold’s Dorm Room Dealers30 and anthologies such as The
Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,31 and
Drugs and the American Dream.32 While some works do approach from a more cultural studies angle like Sarah Thornton in her influential book Club Cultures33 their emphasis is not on cannabis (sub)culture itself. Rather, cannabis (sub)culture is only examined as a facet of a larger subculture of interest–typically that of drug culture. In contrast to this, there are some newer anthologies such as Drugs and Popular Culture34 and The Pot Book35 that are successful in separating cannabis (sub)culture from other forms of drug cultures yet they still fall short in
28 Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1963).
30 A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold, Dorm Room Drug Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2010).
31 Andrew Golub, ed., The Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2012).
32 Patricia A. Adler, Peter Adler, and Patrick K. O’Brian, ed., Drugs and the American Dream: An Anthology (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012).
33 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).
34 Paul Manning, ed., Drugs and Popular Culture (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007).
35 Julie Holland, M.D., ed., The Pot Book (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010). 20 presenting a unified, and self-defined, image of cannabis (sub)culture as a unique subcultural entity. Many of the debates present in these anthologies still have a hugely disproportional emphasis on the medical relevancy and legitimacy of cannabis. A closer production to true cultural studies analysis, and the most specific focus on cannabis culture, can be found in special and regular popular media publications like The Nation36 and Rolling Stone.37 However, the platform through which these essays and editorials are delivered leaves them in the realm of journalism, which while certainly relevant and credible, gives the content a detached, objective tone, or, on the other extreme, an overtly biased agenda. The “facts” are being presented about the state of medical and legal issues, while occasionally drawing on a case study of a celebrity who enjoys partaking in cannabis. Additionally, the amount of this material is significantly sparser than the other discussions of cannabis (sub)culture previously mentioned.
Because of the dominance of sociological and medical discourse on the subject, I see a potential niche to be filled by a cultural studies analysis and interpretation of cannabis
(sub)culture as separate from “drug culture,” and one that does not depend heavily on medicinal validity. Sociological studies of cannabis (sub)culture tend to wrap it into a larger discussion of social deviance or resistance and therefore neglect any unique subcultural insights it may offer.
Through a critique of the current literature on the subject, my aim is to demonstrate the need for a cultural studies approach to cannabis (sub)culture. I conclude on the proposition that the prevalent representations and discussions of cannabis (sub)culture warrant further analysis of a phenomenon that is already happening yet has, to this point, evaded a critical cultural studies observation.
36 The Nation, 18 November 2013.
37 Rolling Stone, 20 June 2013. 21
Review of Current Literature – A History of Cannabis Culture Neglect
In an attempt to find cultural studies literature on cannabis (sub)culture I came across a surprising discovery: it hardly exists. While it is not difficult to find references to cannabis smoking and dealing in various works, studying this subculture as it exists is not the focus of much research and instead is usually subsumed under the umbrellas of social deviance or “drug culture” as a whole that makes little, if any, distinction between a cannabis smoker and a crack smoker. Additionally, while it would be unfair to claim that no works focus exclusively on cannabis culture (i.e., Golub) the emphasis is still ultimately on something else, and merely uses cannabis (sub)culture as a token example. Because sociology views participation in a drug culture as social deviance or resistance, these works are inherently biased towards providing a remedy for this social ailment.
For example, The Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use at the Turn of thee
Twenty-First Century compiled by Andrew Golub is exclusively about cannabis use but is compiled in order to provide analysis of drug regulation and treatment strategies. The fact that the National Institute on Drug Abuse funded most of the studies in this anthology sheds light on the intent of the researchers and the audience the work is aimed at.38 Additionally, this anthology is done in an entirely sociological fashion and leaves the reader with the sense that the
38 The mission statement of the NIDA claims, “NIDA's mission is to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction. This charge has two critical components. The first is the strategic support and conduct of research across a broad range of disciplines. The second is ensuring the rapid and effective dissemination and use of the results of that research to significantly improve prevention and treatment and to inform policy as it relates to drug abuse and addiction [emphasis added]” (http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida). This terminology implies the preconceived notions and intentions of research funded by the NIDA.
22 researchers are far removed from the subject material they are studying and that the conclusions they draw are a classic case of speaking for or at a subculture rather than enabling its members to speak for themselves. Subjects, and their lived experiences, are reduced to representative facts and figures from which conclusions about their lives and motivations are drawn. Even the participant-observation techniques still seem to leave a gap between researcher and subject that paints them as a curious “other” whose motives and actions are best understood by a detached observer. For example, in a study from this anthology titled "Bongs and Blunts: Notes from a
Suburban Marijuana Subculture"39 Brian Kelly spends a significant amount of time observing patterns of cannabis consumption in a group of white suburban youth. Regarding his method for data collection, Kelly says:
The participant-observation I engaged in over an 18-month period allowed me to "hang out" with Will and his friends in the settings in which they consumed marijuana. This in- depth immersion in these settings enabled an assessment of patterns of observed behavior and the opportunity to link these observations to interview data to cultivate fuller interpretations of subcultural social norms and practices. I documented numerous occasions of their drug use. The use of participant-observation eliminated a need to rely on the self-report of these respondents; thus, it further increased the validity of the data.40
While this method of data collection is entirely in line with the discipline of sociology, it demonstrates the detached perspective that I do not see as the most useful. I have no way of determining how Kelly actually went about his observations, but it seems unlikely to me that he was able to "hang out" with a group of cannabis consumers for a year and half and not at the very least form relationships with members of this group, or at the very most partake in the actions of which he was supposedly a detached observer. Whether he did or not is perhaps irrelevant; what
39 Brian Kelly, “Bongs and Blunts: Notes from a Suburban Marijuana Subculture,” in The Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Andrew Golub (New York: Routledge, 2012).
40 Ibid., 84. 23 is important is that in the spirit of producing sociological style work on the topic, he feels compelled to not admit it, or at the least, circumvent the discussion entirely at the risk of appearing to compromise his integrity as a researcher. Consequently, in this quest to remove value judgments from the study, sociologists such as the ones in this anthology ironically load their research with value judgments. From the very beginning of their approach–viewing participation in drug culture as social deviance–the researchers are “objectively” viewing their research material through a highly subjective lens. While this method is important for certain contexts and particular audiences, it leaves a large part of the story untold.
Even works such as Howard Becker’s Outsiders, which borders on the realm of cultural studies, only uses cannabis (sub)culture as a secondary characteristic of both social deviants (the
Becker uses cannabis (sub)culture as a token example of how one may become labeled a social deviant and the steps that a person may take in adopting a deviant career. While these theoretical models clearly demonstrate that participation in cannabis (sub)culture fit into them, their ultimate purpose is to provide a framework that includes all potential forms of social deviance. In this way, cannabis (sub)culture is not seen as different from any other form of social deviance. It is not viewed and studied as a unique cultural phenomenon for its own right but rather is utilized to demonstrate how participation in this activity may result in the labeling of one as a social deviant. Becker's work will be explored more extensively regarding the history of subcultures in the next chapter, but for now, suffice it to say that while this certainly holds true it does not account for the subtlety and uniqueness of a cultural phenomenon that deserves focused attention.
41 Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1963). 24
Another example of a sociological work that includes cannabis (sub)culture, albeit less quantitative and much more recent, is Dorm Room Dealers written by A. Rafik Mohamed and
Erik Fritsvold. In their research, Mohamed and Fritsvold studied the drug dealing culture at several universities in Southern California. In the course of their study they found some interesting, though not surprising, results regarding the role class and race play in the “visibility” of drug dealers. Essentially, the primarily white, middle to upper class demographic that they researched was immune to scrutiny by authority and was able to carry out their illicit activities undisturbed. In regards to this freedom, the authors state, “We theorize that our dealers’ racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds allowed them and their clientele to exist freely as anti- targets in the US drug war and to maintain a nondeviant public status despite their flagrantly illegal behavior.”42 In the context of their study the roles that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status played to the various dealers were the most important unifying factor, and while there was a large emphasis on cannabis dealing (as it was the product of choice for most of the dealers) it was still subsumed under the larger category of drug dealing in general. For example, there was a large amount of attention given to the dealing of prescription medications. While it may be true that many of the cannabis dealers also diversify their operation into the realm of other illicit substances, the scope of the study limits it to only observing the distribution end of this culture.
Just because a dealer is selling a variety of items does not imply that the buyers are purchasing one of everything. Additionally, the focus on racial and class issues are only explored in the context of dealing. Because of this, their study is slightly misleading in regards to wrapping cannabis (sub)culture in with all drug-consuming subcultures.
42 A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold, Dorm Room Drug Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2010), 7. 25
In just the past few years, there have been several contributions to the discussion of cannabis (sub)culture that take a more multidisciplinary, holistic approach to presenting information on the topic. Despite this, the fact that these works are anthologies means that in spirit, they come close to cultural studies, but fail to deliver a comprehensive and critical narrative on the subject. The first example of these is Drugs and Popular Culture edited by Paul
Manning. Here, Manning lays the groundwork for what he sees as being a comprehensive approach to academic discussion of drug culture, though despite his optimistic introduction, ultimately falls short in delivering that anthology. Regarding his vision, Manning says:
[I]t is important to retain the distinction between representations of drug use through media and cultural institutions, and the cultural practices of those actually consuming drugs. In other words, an examination of the place of drug consumption in popular culture involves a consideration of both mainstream media representations and the “real” cultural practices of ordinary people. [emphasis in original]43
This is very “cultural studies” considering that Manning is calling for the recognition that the representations of drug cultures do not necessarily align with those actual cultures, and that those cultures should be allowed to represent themselves. Despite this, the anthology ultimately only delivers those representations of drug cultures, without actually engaging the participants. This is made obvious when considering the largest of the thematic sections of the book (i.e., the one with the most essays) is titled “Representing Drugs in and as Popular Culture.” Essay titles include, “Drugs, the family and recent American cinema” and “Drug dealers as folk heroes?
Drugs and television situation comedy.” Each of these two essays only perform textual analyses of representations of drug culture, never positing how or where these representations go awry, but merely speculating on the “normalization” of drug culture that is apparently occurring.
Finally, Drugs and Popular Culture ultimately falls victim to the same essential problem as
43 Paul Manning, ed., Drugs and Popular Culture (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007), 4. 26 sociological studies, in that it does not separate cannabis (sub)culture from drug culture as a whole entity.
Contrary to this, the anthology The Pot Book edited by Julie Holland makes that distinction, as is made apparent in the title. In fact, this anthology comes the closest to what I see as being a true critical cultural studies analysis of cannabis (sub)culture. Holland sees the importance of separating cannabis (sub)culture from the rest of drug culture, if for no other reason than the general safety of our (young) population. For instance, in the introduction she claims that, “if you separate cannabis from the harder drugs, you can have an impact on which drugs teenagers end up using.”44 Additionally, she sees this distinction as being important for medical reasons as well, as she herself is an M.D. Because of this, there is a heavy emphasis again on the medical benefits of cannabis as the sections “Risks of Use and Harm Reduction” and “The Clinical Use of Cannabis” encompass twenty essays together, while the “Cannabis
Culture” section has only six entries. Regardless, the attempt at a holistic book on cannabis that covers nearly all aspects of cannabis (sub)culture is an important step in the right direction. It is indicative of the changing sentiments among the general population, academics, and professionals alike and is an important contribution to public discussions on cannabis culture.
Despite this step forward, it is particularly surprising that there is a lack of specifically and uniquely cultural studies literature on cannabis (sub)culture considering that there has been a noticeable shift in its visibility in the media, both news and entertainment. It seems that on the
“news” side of media, cannabis (sub)culture has been given visibility due to increases in discussions over cannabis’ legal status as well as potential medical benefits. This can be clearly seen in the June 20, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone and the November 18, 2013 issue of The Nation,
44 Julie Holland, M.D., ed., The Pot Book (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010), 3. 27 two magazines which devoted entire issues to discussions surrounding cannabis. In Rolling
Stone, articles such as “The Real Drug Czar”45 and “United States of Pot”46 address issues of legalization in the U.S., tracing various ballot initiatives and the money spent on a failing drug war. Arguments like these are common, and the sentiments expressed in both the articles, as well as the statistics they cite, draw a picture of an increasingly tolerant general public. In The Nation, similar articles can be found regarding both legal and medical issues. Titles like “Blowing
Smoke: How the Press Declared the Drug War Over, Even as the Federal Crackdown on
Cannabis Continued”47 and “Prescription: Cannabis”48 also cover similar content: a disconnect between popular opinion and the intense enforcements of cannabis’ still federally-illegal status, and an increasingly overwhelming pool of studies and evidence that support the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The Nation also provides two other essays that draw attention to an issue of cannabis (sub)culture alluded to in Dorm Room Dealers but never fully fleshed out due to the scope of their study which proves the inverse–that whites are able to successfully and easily avoid incarceration. In both “Pot Reform’s Race Problem”49 and “The Scandal of Racist
Marijuana Arrests”50 the drug war is framed as a “new Jim Crow,”51 providing an excuse for
45 Tim Dickinson, “The Real Drug Czar,” Rolling Stone, 20 June 2013, 56.
46 “United States of Pot,” Rolling Stone, 20 June 2013, 59.
47 Mike Riggs, “Blowing Smoke,” The Nation, 18 November 2013, 12.
48 Martin A. Lee, “Prescription Cannabis,” The Nation, 18 November 2013, 27.
49 Carl L. Hart, “Pot Reform’s Race Problem,” The Nation, 18 November 2013, 17.
50 Harry Levine, “The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests,” The Nation, 18 November 2013, 18.
51 Ibid., 20.
“racism without racists”52 as police officers can easily meet arrest quotas and even earn bonus pay simply by stopping, searching, and arresting easily targeted minority populations.
While the news side of media coverage can be attributed to increases in discussions over cannabis’s legal status as well as potential medical benefits, the entertainment side seems to be the result of a shift in public perception. TV shows and movies have shifted from passive, tangential representations of cannabis smoking (i.e., That 70’s Show) in which the activity was not a central focus to shows that bring its production and consumption front and center (i.e.,
Workaholics, Wilfred, Weeds). These markers of popular culture would seem to indicate that public sentiments are shifting towards a relative acceptance of this subculture, or at the least, that there is a large enough demographic to market these shows to that result in profits for the industries that produce them. This shift in perception is not entirely attributable to a vague
“public” though, but rather a complex symbiotic relationship between the consumers and producers of media.
In her book Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton argues just this case in regards to underground music scenes in 1990’s Britain. In her own words, she says, “I argue that there is, in fact, no opposition between subcultures and the media, except for a dogged ideological one.”53
Contrary to youth subcultural ideologies, “subcultures” do not germinate from a seed and grow by force of their own energy into mysterious “movements” only to be belatedly
52 Ibid., 19.
53 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 116.
digested by the media. Rather, media and other culture industries are there and effective right from the start.54
While the underground, deviant, and resistant groups of subcultures may see their actions and roles as separate from, and merely documented by, the masses it is actually these various forms of media that give life to and help create the subculture. Thornton claims, “Like genres, subcultures are constructed in the process of being ‘discovered.’ Journalists and photographers do not invent subcultures, but shape them, mark their core and reify their borders.”55 More specifically, “Communications media create subcultures in the process of naming them and draw boundaries around them in the act of describing them.”56 Because of this, media representations of cannabis (sub)culture are not just aspects to be studied in relation to that subculture but are in fact essential to its creation, definition, appropriation, and any other processes it may go through.
Shows like Workaholics and Weeds are not pure representations of a phenomenon that is happening. Though they may be true to some extent, it must also be taken into consideration that these forms of media are serving to help define and make visible a subculture that in turn shapes its practices based on the representations of itself.
Building off of this subcultural process of self-identification and production, I intend to explore how this process operates in digital spaces, specifically the website and online community of Reddit. Since Thornton’s work was written before the expansion of online spaces in which communities can “gather” and self-identify much more readily and fluidly, I would like to explore how these ideas translate into the digital realm. This will ultimately lead me to the end result of being able to record how cannabis (sub)culture communities self-identify in spaces that
54 Ibid., 117.
55 Ibid., 160.
56 Ibid., 162. 30 are entirely self-produced and regulated, the processes involved in this subcultural identity production, and how this compares to and affects the lived realities of those participating in the subculture. Through my survey of predominant literature on the subject of cannabis (sub)culture it is clear that there are many works available, however the majority of these focus on the fields of sociology and medicine. While these studies certainly have much to offer in the way of insight on drug use, treatment, regulation, and a variety of other quantifiable aspects they fall short in allowing this subculture to be what it is. Whereas the traditional subculture depends on its invisibility to create and maintain its legitimacy, cannabis (sub)culture instead actively seeks visibility in many cases. Where the traditional subculture loses itself by incorporation into mass culture, cannabis (sub)culture instead appears to be gaining momentum and further clarifying and “finding” itself as it becomes more incorporated. This makes a study of cannabis
(sub)culture valuable to not only the observer of American culture but also to the scholar of subcultural theory. Sarah Thornton provides a good starting point for this by concluding her own work with the interpretation that, “[S]ubcultures are best defined as social groups that have been labeled as such. This is the most convincing way to account for the fact that some cultural groupings are deemed subcultural while others, whose practices may be equally arcane, are not.”57 In this context, assuming that cannabis (sub)culture has traditionally been a subculture it would be a fruitful topic to discuss what its incorporation into dominant culture means. If, despite this massive increase in visibility, it continues to be labeled and qualify as a “subculture” it may hold a unique position as one of the most widely participated in subcultures still observed as deviant or resistant.
57 Ibid. 31
CHAPTER 2: SUBCULTURAL FOUNDATIONS
Why Subcultural Theory?
To this point it has been demonstrated that there is a dire need for a cultural studies approach to studying cannabis (sub)culture. Building on a lineage of theory that borders on the realm of cultural studies, and overlaps it in many ways, I would like to explore cannabis culture through a subcultural lens. Subcultural theory has deep roots in studying those on the margins of society, and though has not been successful in acknowledging the uniqueness of cannabis
(sub)culture as a topic of study, has been involved in studying drug cultures from the beginning.
Recently, however, subcultural theory has faced critiques that threaten the very applicability of the theory itself and endanger its continued relevance. In this chapter I will briefly outline this lineage of subcultural theory, address the current critiques, and, building off the work of
Sveninung Sandberg, propose and expand on an alternative model for subcultural theory. By adjusting the focus of the theory and bringing to light some of its major unspoken tenets, I will propose an alternative model of subcultural theory that maintains the essence of the field while adapting and adjusting it accordingly to compensate for current cultural trends. 32
Using Subcultural Theory: Informing a Discussion of Cannabis Culture
Subcultural theory as we know it today had its origins in the Chicago School of
Sociology–both a well-established department as well as method of study. The rich urban environment of Chicago's cityscape provided the grounds on which early University of Chicago sociologists explored the methods and findings of ethnographic and (anthropological) style field- research. Resulting from this urban environment, the primary groups of interest to be studied were those on the fringes and margins of society such as gangs, vagabonds, or drug users.
Generally speaking, these groups were viewed as deviant and in contrast to a dominant, mainstream culture. Their lifestyles and activities, by conscious choice, put them on the fringes of acceptable society and therefore were of particular interest in studying how and why they choose to live their lives on the "outside." This phrase is taken from one of the primary and most influential texts to arise from the Chicago School–Howard Becker’s Outsiders: Studies in the
Sociology of Deviance.
In this classic study, Becker seeks to define what constitutes an outsider and how they come about living the lifestyle they do. This starts by drawing distinctions between a dominant, mainstream culture and those of the deviants, based in the perceptions of an action viewed as deviant, not in any particular action itself. According to Becker:
All social groups make rules and attempt, at some times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate them, specifying some actions as “right” and forbidding others as “wrong.” When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind 33
of person, one cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed upon by the group. He is regarded as an outsider. [emphasis in original]58
Elaborating on the socially constructed nature of deviance, he explains:
[S]ocial groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the applications by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” [emphasis in original]59
This is essentially the crux for Becker’s argument. What is considered socially deviant is not rooted in or limited to any particular act itself and is instead dependent on perceptions of that act.
That which is considered to be deviant in one time and place may not be labeled as deviant in another. The boundaries are ever-changing and morph though time and place.
It is interesting that Becker considers the labeling of deviants to be such a fluid and fluctuating process while simultaneously drawing such a sharp boundary between those actually in the deviant group (how/whatever labeled) and those that are considered to be in the
“mainstream.” While the historical importance of Howard Becker’s Outsiders is apparent, some of the major tenets of his work are unspoken, and thus leave room for critique. The most predominant of these is the fact that the "outsiders" in Becker’s work are perceived as in opposition to a "dominant," "mainstream" culture whose boundaries are vaguely conceived and not explicitly acknowledged. Reiterating again his definition of deviance, he says, “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance.”60 This definition
58 Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1963), 1.
59 Ibid., 9.
34 allows for some ambiguity regarding what actually constitutes a deviant act by acknowledging that it is a socially constructed category, but the analysis ends there. No thought is given to what or who these “social groups” are or what they represent. In ironic contrast, this attention is given to the deviant groups but never expands to include the dominant culture. On this Becker says,
“students of deviance cannot assume that they are dealing with a homogeneous category when they study people who have been labeled as deviant.”61 In this very sentence, the difficult-to- define deviant is placed in opposition to the falsely conceived homogeneous category of dominant culture.
Growing out of a specific critique of the Chicago School style of sociological theory, or just incidentally, a group of scholars across the ocean took up similar issues of studying those members of society on the fringes, and subsequently gave scholars the term "subculture." Instead of viewing the problem in terms of mainstream perception though, the scholars of the
Birmingham School, also known as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, instead approached topics of social marginality in terms of resistance rather than deviance. The crucial difference here is that the defining characteristic of what qualifies one to be a member of a socially outcast or marginal group is not dependent on the perception of some vague
"mainstream," but rather the actions and intentions of those participating in that culture.
Deliberate acts of resistance to the dominant, mainstream culture are what qualify one to be labeled as a member of a subculture.
Through this version of subcultural theory, the Birmingham scholars sought to answer a specific question that was relevant to the context of their time and place. The post-WWII-Britain social and cultural circumstances and the resistant and counter-cultural movements that were
61 Ibid. 35 arising lent itself to drawing quick and clean distinctions between the rebellious, resistant, and counter-cultural movements of the era and the traditionally and dominantly conservative mainstream culture. These scholars noticed something particular happening–the generation born to those who fought in and lived through WWII were lashing out against their parent culture.
This is certainly not the first time in human history for this to happen, and it has not been the last, but in that context certain circumstances lined up that allowed for this particular creation of resistant subculture as an object of study and theoretical model. The presence of distinct counter- cultural movements, combined with the academic gaze that noticed them allowed for
"subculture" to enter the vocabulary of both scholars and layman alike. It was easy to conceptualize these counter-cultural movements as a literal "sub"-set of the population.
Semantically, this implies a hierarchical order–a "sub"-culture is literally "below" that of its dominant culture. Granted, this may not imply any sort of value judgment, yet it does suggest levels of participation, acceptance, and attitude, among other things. For the Birmingham School, members of a subculture are inherently outcasts, rebels, those on the fringes of society. To be a member of such a subculture is to actively and consciously separate oneself from the normalcy and acceptance that comes with practicing the dominant culture. These were the general assumptions that drove the initial conception of what a subculture was, and those counter- cultural groups that were originally labeled as subcultures. It was something qualitatively different from the dominant culture, it came with negative social consequences, and ultimately was dependent not on the perceptions and judgments of those in the dominant culture, but rather the intentions and sentiments of the individual(s) participating in it.
Leading the charge of this change in subcultural perception is, arguably, Dick Hebdige in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, in which Hebdige studies infamous British 36 subcultural movements including beats, mods, and punks primarily through the styles that they manifest. Hebdige emphasizes the importance that the attitude of resistance plays in the formation and sustenance of a subculture. He says that, “Each subcultural ‘instance’ represents a
‘solution’ to a specific set of contradictions.”62 Here we can see the sentiment that a subculture cannot exist without a particular condition of resistance, an active rejection of something, or a defining against. The essence of a subculture to Hebdige cannot be centered on or sustained by just any common set of ideas, assumptions, images, narratives, etc. He does acknowledge that these sentiments can be contained within and expressed by objects of style though. Essentially, this makes up the crux of Hebdige’s argument. To elaborate, he says in regard to style that:
Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go “against nature,” interrupting the process of “normalization.” As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the “silent majority,” which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus. Our task becomes, like Barthes’, to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surfaces of style, to trace them out as “maps of meaning” which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to resolve or conceal.63
In this way, resistant subcultural sentiments can be contained within objects themselves and are the essence of the subculture itself. When the objects cease to carry the counter-cultural meaning they were imbued with (often times by appropriation), the subculture ceases to exist. Hebdige claims that:
Thus, as soon as the original innovations which signify “subculture” are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become “frozen.” Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce
62 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 81.
63 Ibid., 18.
them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.64
Expanding further on how subculture (in this particular instance, punk) symbols of style, and specifically, fashion, come to be normalized by the mass, dominant culture, he says, “Models smoldered beneath mountains of safety pins and plastic (the pins where jeweled, the ‘plastic’ wet-look satin) and the accompanying article ended with an aphorism – ‘To shock is chic’ – which presaged the subculture’s imminent demise.”65 The crucial point to take away from these conclusions, and the work of Hebdige, is that the essence of a subculture is dependent on and constituted by resistance and the objects of style through which that is manifested and made visible. A further exploration of these ideas will come later, but first, another author in the tradition of the Birmingham School method of subcultural theory will be explored.
A later, yet equally important, addition to the Birmingham School’s catalog of subcultural studies (though she is Canadian by birth) is that of Sarah Thornton in her book, Club Cultures:
Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. In her study of British rave subculture, Thornton continues in the vein of Birmingham School-style subcultural theory, viewing her subcultures of interest as resistant to a mainstream culture. She pushes the field and theory forward though by her reconceptualization of what defines the "mainstream." Whereas in both the Chicago School and Birmingham School veins of subcultural theory the dominant mainstream is viewed as some cohesive, yet amorphous, homogeneous mass that is either to be deviated from or resisted, respectively, Thornton questions the make up and role of that "mainstream." Through her case study of British club and rave cultures during the 1990s Thornton ultimately comes to the conclusion, as previously mentioned, that, “[S]ubcultures are best defined as social groups that
64 Ibid., 96.
65 Ibid. 38 have been labeled as such. This is the most convincing way to account for the fact that some cultural groupings are deemed subcultural while others, whose practices may be equally arcane, are not.”66 This doesn’t seem to be in opposition to Becker’s, and in general the Chicago
School’s, own definition and in fact it’s not. Both scholars seem to agree on what defines a deviant or a subculture: labeling, either from itself or from the outside. The divergence in thinking comes again from what exactly constitutes that dominant “mainstream.” Thornton directly addresses both schools simultaneously, by way of Dick Hebdige, though his views seem to be on par with Becker’s regarding the "mainstream." She says, “Each reference to
“mainstream” in Subculture points in a different direction, but if one added them up, the resultant group would be some version of the “bourgeoisie” whose function within Hebdige’s history is, of course, to be shocked.”67 This seems to be the same way in which Becker conceives of dominant culture as well. Thornton’s stance is valuable in recognizing that the mainstream is not actually something tangible, measurable, or able to be defined, but is rather a tool and concept utilized by subcultures in order to define themselves. She says, “Rather than painting an omniscient picture of the social organization – or disorganization – of youth culture, I investigate the mainstream as an important feature of the ‘embodied social structure’ of youth.”68 Just as the cultural and sociological theorists of past could not accurately define the mainstream, neither can the subcultures which also use the concept. Despite a lack of concrete definition though, it is still an important aspect of participating in a subculture and Thornton addresses it as such; not seeking that elusive definition of "dominant" or "mainstream" but instead acknowledging that it
66 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 162.
67 Ibid., 93.
68 Ibid., 98. 39
(no matter the definition) is a powerful idea utilized by subcultures. The idea of what a dominant mainstream represents is the crucial factor in outlining the next progression of subcultural theory–the normalization thesis.
The Normalization Thesis: Addressing the “Mainstream” and Social Acceptance
Despite the lingering presence of subcultural studies (or at the least the term “subculture” itself, whether or not associated with the academic definition) there has been active pushback against its relevance and ability to accurately describe and study subsets of the population.
Addressing the issues of relations between a deviant or resistant subculture and the mainstream is what motivated the development of the normalization thesis. In essence, the thesis is a critique of subcultural theory as a whole, positing that because subcultures are so fluid, permeable, and cannot be reduced to a binary opposite of the mainstream, that the idea and theory of
"subculture" itself is irrelevant. What we would traditionally call a "subculture" is always in the process of being co-opted by the mainstream culture, and "normalized" to the point where any act that could once be relegated to a subculture ultimately, and inevitably, becomes normal and acceptable. Of additional relevance here, the normalization thesis also depends heavily on studying drug cultures. The argument follows that because drugs and drug consumption are
(generally) moving in a direction towards acceptance and tolerance, that those participants in a drug culture who would traditionally be viewed as a subculture, either for deviance or resistance, are becoming accepted and hence losing their qualities of being considered a traditional
Most of these critiques arise from the fields of criminological and sociological studies, which, ironically, can be traced as the source of subcultural studies itself, as has been previously mentioned. Specifically, "In criminological and sociological studies of illegal drugs, the thesis of normalization suggests that when a drug goes from being a marginal to a widespread phenomenon, theoretical and methodological approaches that rely on subculture theory fall short.”69 The argument follows that because drug use has become so normalized in recent decades that it no longer effectively constitutes a subculture, the traditional methods used to study subcultures are no longer applicable. According to Paul Manning:
[T]here is a strong case for viewing drug consumption and its cultural practices as occupying a more visible position within contemporary popular cultures. This view depends upon “the normalization thesis”; the argument that recreational drug use is now so familiar to those aged below 35 years that it should be regarded as “normal,” rather than an activity confined to minority subcultures.70
Accordingly, proponents of the normalization thesis have argued that it “‘sits uncomfortably with subcultural explorations’ (Parker et al., 1998: 156).”71
Providing a framework for the normalization thesis, and informing some of its tenets by way of a longitudinal study, is the work of Howard Parker, Lisa Williams, and Judith Aldridge.
The original researchers of the study, Parker et al. revisited their findings in the essay, "The normalisation of 'sensible' recreational drug use: further evidence from the North West
70 Paul Manning, ed., Drugs and Popular Culture (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007), 49.
71 Sveinung Sandberg, “Cannabis culture: A stable subculture in a changing world,” Criminology & Criminal Justice 13 (2012), 64. 41
Longitudinal Study."72 Explaining the lineage of the term, they state that, "The term normalisation was developed during the late 1950s in Denmark in respect of creating 'normal' living conditions for people with learning difficulties."73 The term was eventually appropriated by scholars in various disciplines, particularly those of sociological and criminological studies to define the processes through which stigmatized actions or lifestyles come to be generally accepted. Further, the term carries a certain significance for the study of drug cultures and how they come to be participated in to the point of general acceptance. Specifically:
The application of the concept of normalisation as a way of exploring and explaining an unprecedented increase in the drug involvement of young Britons across the 1990s was introduced by authors' research group in the mid 1990s. It was an attempt to make sense of the findings of a unique longitudinal study of several hundred “ordinary” young people's experiences of growing up “drugwise.”74
The "research group" referenced here is that of the North West Longitudinal Study. It:
[B]egan in 1991 (Year 1) when over 700 14-year-olds formed the original cohort. This sample was tracked, annually, utilising self report questionnaires, initially for five years until, in Year 5, they were 18 (1995). The initial aim of the investigation was to explore how “ordinary” English adolescents were growing up in respect of their introduction to and subsequent consumption of alcohol and illicit dugs. The study was also concerned with lifestyles and leisure and how illicit drugs related to these (Parker et al. 1998).75
Ultimately, the study concluded with the findings that:
The normalisation thesis in respect of sensible recreational drug use can only be comprehensively assessed using long term epidemiolgocial and social trends data. The new evidence from this longitudinal study supports the notion that “sensible” recreational
72 Parker et al., “The normalisation of ‘sensible’ recreational drug use: further evidence from the North West Longitudinal Study,” in Drugs and Popular Culture, ed. Paul Manning (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007).
73 Ibid., 74.
74 Ibid., 74-5.
75 Ibid., 81. 42
drug use is continuing to be gradually further accommodated into the lifestyles of ordinary young Britons.76
Because “sensible” recreational drug use is no longer viewed as deviant or resistant, the study, and normalization thesis, suggest that drug subcultures can no longer be viewed as such in the traditional definitions of subculture.
In critique of the North West Longitudinal Study and its findings, Michael Shiner and Tim
Newburn, in their essay, "Definitely, maybe not? The normalisation of recreational drug use amongst young people"77 provide an analysis of the same data and its interpretations, ultimately coming to a different conclusion. The authors state that:
[S]ome commentators have, on the basis of the emerging survey data, argued that drug use by young people is becoming so common that it is no longer regarded as a “deviant” activity by them. Put another way, they claim that drug use among young people is becoming normalised. We wish to challenge this view – one we describe as the “normalisation thesis” – and contend that far more has been read into the survey data than is warranted. Drug use among young people, we will argue, has some distance to travel before it assumes the status of a “normalised” activity.78
Elaborating on their critique more specifically, they claim that:
While we do not take issue with the view that there is much that young people do that adults find puzzling, we do wish to challenge the picture painted by some advocates of the normalisation thesis which stresses the uniformity and apparent ubiquitousness of youthful drug use, and underplays the tensions and divisions that continue to exist within youth culture(s).79
76 Ibid., 90-1.
77 Michael Shiner and Tim Newburn, “Definitely, maybe not? The normalisation of recreational drug use amongst young people,” in Drugs and Popular Culture, ed. Paul Manning (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007).
78 Ibid., 56.
79 Ibid., 58. 43
In their research, Shiner and Newburn discovered that even among youth cultures, there was still a strong resistance to drug use and its lifestyle. Accordingly, they determine that the normalization thesis overestimates the levels of youth acceptance of drug use and that fundamentally, those in favor of the normalization thesis have a, "confusion between normalcy and frequency."80 Citing interviews with the youth populations in question, Shiner and Newburn paint an alternative picture of drug use normalization among youth populations, ultimately coming to the conclusion that, "The breadth of the views about drugs expressed by the young people in the study defied simple generalisation and challenged the monolithic implication of claims that drug use is becoming 'normalised.'"81 Essentially, the researchers found that there are strong sentiments against the acceptance and normalization of drug use among youth populations and that statistics representing increased use of drugs does not necessarily correlate to increased acceptance.
While the critique of Shiner and Newburn towards the normalization thesis is certainly a relevant and accurate one, their analysis still leaves something to be desired. Though they draw attention to the fact that sentiments towards drug use normalization are not necessarily what they appear or have been proposed to be, ultimately their critique rests on the same assumptions as both the Chicago and Birmingham School. Specifically, Shiner and Newburn fall victim to the same limited assumption that what constitutes a subculture is dependent on the relational perceptions of groups, either towards other groups or internally, be it in terms of social acceptance, as framed by the Chicago School, or in terms of resistance, as framed by the
80 Ibid., 63.
81 Ibid., 65. 44
Birmingham School. In their critique of the normalization thesis, Shiner and Newburn utilize the same weaknesses of the theory that will be addressed presently.
A Redefinition of Subculture
Sveinung Sandberg, in his essay "Cannabis culture: A stable subculture in a changing world,"82 puts forth an alternative and workable definition of what constitutes a subculture while expanding on the weaknesses of the normalization thesis. Additionally, Sandberg brings the particular subcultural focus to cannabis culture–one of the few academic works to do so, as a survey of current literature has demonstrated. In his essay, Sandberg makes the proposition that the normalization thesis is flawed in its fundamental conception of what constitutes a subculture.
He posits that giving focused attention to cannabis culture as a distinct entity is of value in and of itself, and that a redefinition of subculture towards one that allows its essence to be "disentangled from the overwhelming emphasis on groups of people"83 is of value to the lineage and relevance of subcultural theory.
In contrast to the normalization thesis's rejection of the conceptual usefulness of
"subculture,” other scholars have argued that in fact these theories are not mutually exclusive and can be reconciled. Sandberg makes this argument himself, as well as citing others who do. On this he states, “Michael Shiner (2009), on the other hand, has argued that subcultural insights from the classic studies of illegal drug use still provide insights necessary to understand
82 Sveinung Sandberg, “Cannabis culture: A stable subculture in a changing world,” Criminology & Criminal Justice 13 (2012).
83 Ibid., 68.
45 contemporary drug use (see, for example, Becker, 1963; Goode, 1970; Johnson, 1973; Young,
1971). This study reaches a similar conclusion.”84 The way that this is reconciled is ultimately through a reconceptualization and redefinition of what constitutes a subculture. Those in the vein of normalization theory that reject the usefulness of the subcultural approach are merely rejecting a limited understanding of what a subculture is and represents. The root of this is a misunderstanding of what the essential substance of a subculture is. Sandberg makes this distinction clear, claiming that, “normalization theory fails to recognize the existence of a distinct cannabis culture because it has a traditional understanding of subcultures as ‘groups of people.’”85 Instead, subcultures should be conceptualized as, “a collection of rituals, symbols and stories to which all users must relate.”86 This difference in conceptualization allows for the theoretical approach that subcultural studies offers to remain useful, even when the processes of normalization that seem to be occurring in many realms of culture, not just drug (or cannabis) subculture, apparently discredit the idea of a subculture altogether.
It is worth taking the time to examine more closely those ways through which normalization theory is seemingly incompatible with subcultural theory and the ways this can be reconciled (and put forth a new definition of what that substance of a subculture is). According to Sandberg, “Normalization theory fails to recognize cannabis culture because it employs a traditional understanding of subculture rooted in subcultural strain theory (see, for example,
Parker et al., 1998: 20) and emphasizes personal characteristics of users at the cost of the symbolic and social meaning of the substance (see, for example, Parker et al., 1998: 156)”
84 Ibid., 64.
85 Ibid., 63.
86 Ibid., 64.
[emphasis added].87 The disproportional attention that is paid to these personal characteristics of users is rooted in a fundamental tenet of normalization theory. That is:
[C]hange along two dimensions, behavioural and attitudinal. It involves the spread of “drug activity and associated attitudes from the margins towards the centre of youth culture where it joins many other accommodated ‘deviant’ activities such as excessive drinking, casual sexual encounters, and daily cigarette smoking” (Parker et al., 1998: 152). [emphasis in original]88
Seen in this light, the process of normalizing any behavior once deemed as deviant or marginal would in fact serve to eliminate that subculture conceptually. Considering that the activity is no longer on the fringes of acceptable social behavior and has become "normal," the resistant, deviant nature of that activity no longer exists and would seemingly prevent it from being a subculture as historically defined. The argument made here is that a subculture is not defined by the attitudes of social acceptance or by individual intention, but rather, as Sandberg succinctly categorizes, “used as an analytical tool to grasp a culture that transgress individuals.”89 Sandberg continues to elaborate on the concept:
A subculture is a collection of rituals, stories and symbols. They revolve around certain perceptions of the world and are often linked to general cultural currents in society. To a greater or lesser extent, people and groups internalize and embody parts of the subculture. They also exploit the subculture in creative portrayals of themselves.90
In this definition, the essence of a subculture lies not in the attitudes, accepting or not, that surround an activity, substance, or lifestyle, but rather a collection of ideas. Association and identification with a subculture is not hinged on active and conscious resistance or marginality
87 Ibid., 67.
88 Paul Manning, ed., Drugs and Popular Culture (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007), 50.
89 Sveinung Sandberg, “Cannabis culture: A stable subculture in a changing world,” Criminology & Criminal Justice 13 (2012), 68.
90 Ibid. 47 but a set of ideas, symbols, images, narratives, world-views, or any other conceptions of a unified culture that transcend both geography and temporality.
Beyond mere identification though is an active (re)production and (re)presentation of the self. These ideas, symbols, images, and narratives do not exist in a timeless vacuum, untouched and unaltered by those individuals who associate with them. Rather, a subculture is actively produced by and simultaneously producing them. Granted, some of these ideas, symbols, images, and narratives are able to withstand the test of time. Sandberg recognizes this, stating that in the case of cannabis (sub)culture, “contemporary smoking rituals, cannabis symbols and users’ stories cannot be understood without seeing how they are embedded in the hippie and bohemian cultures of the 1960s and 1970s.”91 In fact, this collection of ideas, symbols, images, and narratives is the lifeblood of a subculture. It must exist, in some form, prior to an individual’s ability to associate with it, but it is always being appropriated, locally and contextually applied, and in its turn, given back to the subcultural bank from which it was withdrawn. How this process occurs is most certainly influenced by the current society’s (non)acceptance of the particular lifestyle invoked by a subculture, but the mere existence of that subculture is not dependent on any particular level of acceptance and/or resistance.
I would like to add my own expansion of Sandberg's revised definition of a subculture, further defining and clarifying the ways in which the rituals, symbols, images, and narratives get collected, stored, and applied to individuals' lives. Expanding further on what this actual substance of a subculture is then, I contend that the concept of a subcultural repository is particularly useful. By this, I mean to help visualize how subcultures come into existence, the
91 Ibid., 64. 48 methods through which their essential substance is maintained, and how this serves to continue the cycle and longevity of a subculture for future members.
Much of the way that subcultures are traditionally defined is by way of physical and tangible aspects that set them apart from a dominant mainstream culture. For example, in the
Chicago School definition, it is the perception of a group and the observable activities they perform that constitutes deviance and subsequently their subcultural status. In the Birmingham
School definition, the sentiments of the visual style of a group or the activities they partake in constitute their subcultural status. While this is closer to my definition, it still falls short in recognizing alternative ways through which the subcultural identity is preserved. Observing the
"style" of a group is certainly closer to this definition, although again, it falls short in accounting for the ways in which style is created and perpetuated for future members of the subculture. In
Hebdige's work, style is an indicator of subcultural status, not a source of it. To clarify, style, to
Hebdige, is an identifiable characteristic of an individual who associates with a particular subculture. To see an individual walking down the street with a particular safety pin, patch, or ripped shirt is to, by observation, determine which subculture he or she belongs to. The identification comes first, and the style serves to solidify and project it. It is not the style itself that is considered as being essential to the substance of the subculture–only the way through which individuals utilize that style and the sentiments they project through it. Subsequently, when those objects or symbols lose their resistant status, they are no longer qualified to represent the subculture or harbor its essence. This is not the same as associating the style itself, in terms of images or symbols, with the subculture; the style is a facet of the subculture, not the subculture itself. I argue that the essence of a subculture can be the very style, symbols, images, or narratives that are appropriated and utilized by individuals, even when not viewed as authentic 49 by a particular portion of the subculture or when not imbued with particular sentiments of resistance.
This is what Sandberg is referencing when he refers to traditional definitions of subculture being too concerned with groups of people. While it is undeniable that the human factor must be present in manifesting what a subculture represents, he is suggesting to us that a subculture does not depend on someone actively living it out in its original form for its sustained existence.
Additionally, the essence of a subculture does not exist in any particular object, as Hebdige would have us believe, but rather if that object is accepted as being representative of the subculture. Take for example safety pins and the role they played for punk subculture. Hebdige states that, "Safety pins were taken out of their domestic 'utility' context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip."92 According to Hebdige, the essence of what the subculture represents is located and preserved not within the object itself, in this case safety pins, but within the sentiments of its adornment, and when that object no longer represents solely those sentiments, then the subculture ceases to exist. In this way, safety pins were not punk, but came to represent punk, and when that association was lost, so too was the essence of punk, according to Hebdige. As processes of normalization and appropriation occur, objects may come to lose their association with the subculture, and by Hebdige's conception of a subculture, the subculture itself ceases to exist. I contend that the essence of the subculture does not lie only in the sentiments of an object's use though–punk continues to exist even when safety pins are no longer worthy of representing its resistance. This is because the true essence of the subculture is not contained within the resistant association to an object, but within any association to the object (read: image) itself–an association that either grants that object entrance to the subcultural
92 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 107. 50 repository or has previously allowed for its presence to exist for withdrawal. Hebdige seems to recognize this in a way, but falls short of fully acknowledging that when the resistant sentiments are removed from a particular object, the subculture does not cease to exist. This is because the essence of the subculture was never fully contained within the object as it exists in the world, but rather if the object occupies a place within the subcultural repository. The subculture of punk that no longer accepts safety pins as being representative of it is still the same punk subculture–or rather, it is the same subcultural repository, sans that object and particular manifestation. The essence of a subculture can be maintained and preserved outside of its active manifestation by way of resistant attitudes, and instead, in the collection of symbols, images, rituals, and narratives that exist as associations to that subculture–this is the subcultural repository.
In summation, normalization’s theory and critique of subcultures relies on a particular conception of what subcultures actually are, which Sandberg (and I) argue is incorrect. They too often associate subcultures with groups of people and their relational sentiments and not the collection of symbols, rituals, images, and narratives that surround it and with which individuals identify. Subsequently, proponents of the normalization thesis have an adverse reaction in which they reduce subcultures purely to processes of individuals, not acknowledging the symbols, rituals, and images that can still unite the culture. They argue that subcultures are too fluid, too transitory, too malleable to be reduced to an identifiable "subculture" and therefore claim that it is just a matter of individuals associating with and accepting an activity, thereby eventually
"normalizing" it, moving it from the margins of deviance and resistance to a status of general cultural acceptance. Instead, subcultures should be identified and interpreted by the repository of rituals, symbols, images, and narratives that constitute it. These repositories exist for all subcultures, in one form or another. In the next chapter I will explore a particular way in which 51 that repository can visually and visibly manifest in a pseudo-physical way, providing valuable insight into how the content is generated, collected, and utilized by members of a subculture. 52
CHAPTER 3: A CASE STUDY OF REDDIT
Helping to further visualize how a subcultural repository manifests and functions and expanding from this new definition of subculture, it is necessary to examine current subcultures that are demonstrative of these criteria. Reddit’s r/trees is one such example, a cannabis
(sub)cultural gathering place and visualized repository of the very ideas, symbols, images, and narratives that constitute a subculture. Recalling the beginning of this study, the concern of who exactly is included in this cannabis (sub)culture should be addressed again briefly before exploring in more detail how it manifests on r/trees.
The crucial underlying factor that unites all those people who constitute the cannabis
(sub)culture on r/trees is that of self-identification. While this may seem like a rather arbitrary and obvious criterion, it is the best, and most encompassing, definition that can be given prior to this exploration of r/trees. Again, what constitutes cannabis culture as a whole would be those people who consume cannabis, but what distinguishes simple use from the subcultural space of r/trees is that members of this online community must take the initiative to actively pursue the identification with the subculture. Their self-inclusion in the online community of r/trees is therefore a self-identification with this particular representation of cannabis (sub)culture. Beyond this self-identification, there are no specifics for what constitute the subculture. The symbols, images, and narratives that make up the substance of the subcultural repository for r/trees are constantly being added or replaced, ever changing, and always adapting. There is, then, no formal categorization or coding that can occur in order to identify the community’s essence. It is the very fluidity and flux of the community, and the debates that facilitate it, that are the driving force behind what may be considered the cannabis (sub)culture of r/trees at any given moment. 53
This chapter will begin with an introduction to the website of Reddit, followed by an exploration of a particular segment of Reddit, r/trees, the corner of Reddit reserved for “Ents”93– the home of this virtual cannabis subcultural repository. From there, I will assert that r/trees is not only a vibrant and active subculture, but that the study and actions of such a group also demonstrate characteristics similar to the aforementioned "engaged" cultural studies approach. I will conclude with an analysis of how this, in turn, informs the processes that define the subculture itself.
The Communities of Reddit
The online community of Reddit is a unique internet gathering space in which users generate and share content and collaborate and engage with other individuals from around the globe who are drawn to similar interests. Having totaled 5,036,651,180 page views94 from 196 countries,95 Reddit is a noticeable presence on the internet. The main slogan of Reddit is “The
Front Page of the Internet” as its system of up-voting and down-voting posts is designed to let the best content float to the top, where it is compiled into Reddit’s "Front Page." Any content posted to Reddit can make it to the front page so long as it garners enough positive support in the form of up-votes. The up-voting and down-voting system is regulated by a simple negation policy–each up-vote counteracts one down-vote and vice versa, with the net positive or negative votes being the "points" it has received. Whichever posts currently have the most points make it
93 The term “ent” is a play on J. R. R. Tolkien’s walking trees in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is the name given to members of r/trees, furthering the analogy to trees, forests, nature, etc.
94 “About reddit,” Reddit.com, last modified March 13 2014, http://www.reddit.com/about.
95 Ibid. 54 to Reddit’s front page.96 Because users are always in the process of creating and voting on content, the front page of Reddit is constantly in flux, always shifting, and is never the same twice. Additionally, because of the digital nature of Reddit, users from all over the world collaborate, meaning there is no time that Reddit is not being actively changed. Despite the vast range of locations that the user generated content can come from, its sources can be roughly categorized into "subreddits," which will now be explored in further detail.
The content of Reddit, while compiled into a unified Front Page, is generated and posted in individual subreddits. A subreddit is a community centered on a particular idea, interest, hobby, source of identification, or in some cases, just a very loose theme that doesn’t necessarily constitute a community. Some of the most popular subreddits include titles such as “Pics,”
“Funny,” “Aww,” and “TodayILearned.” Users can "subscribe" to any number of subreddits in which they wish to participate.97 Once a subscriber, users can choose to receive updates from the subreddit, see a customized Front Page catering to only the content posted in that user’s subreddit subscriptions, and at a symbolic level, increase their identification with a particular subreddit. These subreddits are described by Reddit itself as being “communities.”98 As such, each subreddit is created, moderated, and participated in entirely by the users of its community.
96 Additionally, Reddit uses a system beyond my technical scope of understanding that balances points with the age of the post. This prevents the same posts from always occupying the Front Page, although there is an option to view the “Top All-Time” posts, as well as those of the past hour, week, month, and year.
97 Subscribing to a subreddit is not required to participate in a subreddit though, including posting content, voting on it, or commenting.
98 “About reddit,” Reddit.com, last modified March 13 2014, http://www.reddit.com/about.
According to Reddit, “each subreddit is independent and moderated by a team of volunteers.”99
In this way, the subreddit communities are run by and for the people who identify with and wish to participate in their culture and the content that is generated, viewed, discussed, and regulated by each subreddit is entirely the doing of the community.
This is entirely in line with the revised definition of a subculture I am using, both in that the communities of subreddits produce their own sets of images, symbols, and narratives and that it is literally the repository of those. Rather than being predicated on perceptions or intentions of deviance or resistance, a metaphorical idea-space that transcends time and geography is created, and each subreddit becomes a physical manifestation and archive of those subcultural identities.
Additionally, not only is the content generated, but it can be drawn from as well. In the process of creating, discussing, and regulating the content on the subreddit, a repository of that information is created, from which anyone wishing to identify with that subculture can withdraw, or "download."
The content of each individual subreddit, while compiled onto a unified Front Page, is also regulated by the same voting system. In fact, it is not distinct from the general voting system at all. This means that those subreddits with the most subscribers and participants have a better chance of their content reaching the Front Page. Also, a visitor to Reddit who is observing the
Front Page and is not a subscriber to a subreddit, also known as a lurker (such as myself), may still vote on the posts they see. Any visitor to Reddit will find that their votes count towards creating the Front Page, as well as influencing the individual subreddits that the content they see was originally posted in. The idea that any individual who frequents the site may have an influence on the content of a subcultural community of a subreddit is one that may seem to
99 Ibid. 56 contradict their subcultural nature. At first, this would seem to negate the ability of the subreddit to regulate the content of its subcultural repository, if just any person, even those not identifying with the subculture, can influence what is made visible. Exploring the workings of Reddit a little more closely reveals a solution to this paradox though.
The content from a subreddit that makes it to the Front Page of Reddit has essentially already been selected as appropriate by the subreddit itself. Each subreddit has a subsection called “New,” where all new content that has been posted appears. Content on “New” that draws enough initial attention starts working its way up the list of all the new content being posted.
This process is facilitated by those members or subscribers of a particular subreddit who are willing to patrol the new posts, acting as a screening process for that content which deserves further recognition, attention, and discussion. It is then only those very top posts on a subreddit that will garner enough attention and upvotes that would enable them to be visible on the Front
Page of Reddit. Therefore, by the time a passerby, or lurker, of the Front Page sees a post from a particular subreddit and decides to cast their opinion on it by way of voting, the subculture of the subreddit has already gone through this process and deemed it as worthy of being admitted to the subcultural repository. Therefore, voters on the Front Page do not affect what gets allowed into the subcultural repository of a subreddit, as this process must have already occurred in order for the post to be visible at all to the lurker of the Front Page. The role of these subcultural gatekeepers, and the filters they place on the content of the subcultural repository will be explained more clearly in a discussion of how content is "uploaded" and "downloaded" to and from a subreddit, and it will be demonstrated that this does not actually have the negative influences it would initially seem.
r/trees: Reddit as a Repository
The specific subreddit of interest here is one dedicated to cannabis culture, entitled r/trees.100 The subreddit had 568,414101 subscribers at the time of this writing, making r/trees the
31st largest subreddit on the site102 out of 6,273 active subreddits.103 Additionally, it has garnered an average of 15,000,000 views each month by unique users.104 The immense visibility of the subreddit positions r/trees in a distinctive subcultural space, placing itself in direct contrast to traditional definitions of subculture in which visibility by the mainstream serves to co-opt and inevitably destroy subcultures. The visibility also contradicts the ideas of the normalization thesis, which claims that increased participation in a subculture leads to its acceptance, and the subsequent elimination, of its unique subcultural position. If anything, the visibility of r/trees has served to strengthen the subcultural characteristics of cannabis (sub)culture. Despite this, the subcultural community of r/trees does exemplify the characteristics for a subculture as redefined by Sandberg and myself.
One of the most important aspects of this distinction is the self-regulation, defining, and association that occurs in the subcultural community. Each subreddit on Reddit has a "wiki"
100 The term “trees” is a euphemism for cannabis.
101 “RedditList.com – Tracking the top 5,000 subreddits,” RedditList.com, last modified March 13 2014, http://www.redditlist.com. (At the time of this writing.)
103 “About reddit,” Reddit.com, last modified March 13 2014, http://www.reddit.com/about. (At the time of this writing.)
104 “Trees: Traffic Stats,” Reddit.com, last modified March 13 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/about/traffic/. (At the time of this writing.) 58 available in which the moderators105 can post rules and regulations for conduct in the subreddit, ranging from limitations on what can and cannot be posted, to general codes of conduct in comment threads, to subsequent punishments for breaking with these rules. In the community of r/trees, some of the most important regard what can actually be posted, due to the potentially illegal nature of the subject material.106 For instance, the first and primary rule is that, “Your post must be directly related to cannabis.”107 While this is a seemingly obvious and arbitrary rule, as the nature of the subreddit itself should regulate this, it is the conscious effort to regulate that border of what the subreddit’s content is about that adds to its inherently subcultural nature.
Other rules that seek to regulate user activity in terms of legality include, "Do not ask for hookups (or advice on buying trees) or meetups. It will get you banned!"108 and "Do not post/ask personal information."109 The rules are implemented with the intention of protecting r/trees users from legal repercussions by publicly talking about their participation in a still (federally) illegal activity.
Another rule posted is slightly more ambiguous in nature, and concerns the ways in which members of the subreddit should conduct themselves. The rule is as follows: “Be respectful to
105 Moderators are those in charge of managing a subreddit. A person who wishes to create a subreddit becomes its moderator by default, although new moderators can be added/changed pending approval by current moderators or by a lack of activity by the moderator.
106 Depending on state, though federal law provides an inherent illegality to much content on r/trees.
107 “R/trees – Wiki,” Reddit.com, last modified June 2013, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/wiki/index.
109 Ibid. 59 fellow posters - Name calling, rudeness, and trolling110 are not welcome here. Violators won’t be tolerated. This includes being overly aggressive/condescending towards other users, creeping on/objectifying the OP111, any form of hate speech, threats, insults, etc." [emphasis in original].112 This is a clear example of the self-regulation that occurs on the subreddit, and one of the various ways in which the subcultural community of users seeks to not only define the images of themselves, but also their conduct, and subsequently, how that is presented to the world beyond the borders of the subculture. Further, these rules serve as a front line in regulating what content is allowed to be posted to the subreddit, which acts as a screening process for what content is acceptable for the subcultural repository. This screening process will be described in more detail shortly, in the following discussion of how content is actually "downloaded" and
"uploaded" to and from the subreddit of r/trees, and further, how this manifests the abstract processes of the subcultural repository.
The Subcultural Repository: The Process of Uploading and Downloading
There are various ways in which the users of Reddit are capable of both "uploading" and
"downloading" content to and from the site, both figuratively and literally. Put another way, the users who identify with a particular subreddit are able to both generate and consume the content
110 An internet term for one who “trolls” – a reference both to their resemblance in action to the mythical characters of a troll, and simultaneously, to the action of trolling, in which a fishing hook is dragged through the water in the hopes of luring or snagging unsuspecting or gullible prey.
111 “Original Poster.”
112 “R/trees – Wiki,” Reddit.com, last modified June 2013, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/wiki/index. 60 of the site, which in turn serves to inform the identities they are aligning with and manifesting in their own lives. This is a cyclical and interdependent process, as both what is consumed, or
"downloaded," by a user has been created, or "uploaded," by another. In this way, the subcultural community of a subreddit is self-creating, defining, and reinforcing. This process of “uploading” and “downloading” is key to the dynamic construction of the subcultural repository, and the subcultural communities of subreddits, which, with a technological twist, has a unique ability to visibly and visually enact that process.
The ways in which content is "uploaded" to the subcultural repository is certainly the more visible of the two sides of the process, as this literally creates the visual archive of the subcultural identity. This happens in various ways on r/trees including posting pictures of the cannabis plant itself, various mechanisms and devices through which to consume it, stories involving cannabis- related activities, and links to political, medical, and op/ed news articles. This "uploading" of content is a crucial aspect of creating a subcultural repository through which identities can be formed and associated. When a user logs on to the r/trees, they see a list of content produced by others who ostensibly identify with the same subculture. Additionally, because of the process through which Reddit itself works (the upvoting and downvoting system) users can also get a feel for what these other members of the subculture are agreeing or disagreeing with and aligning with or rejecting. As will be explored shortly, this process is also involved in what comments get the most attention. In the same way that the voting system acts to regulate content, the upvoting and downvoting system is applied to the comment threads. Each comment receives upvotes and downvotes, the net of which determines the points it earns, and subsequently the place on the list 61 of comments it occupies. This provides for a sense of active participation, through which members of the subculture vote on what is acceptable or not for the subculture through a system of suggestion and voting.
Due to the political nature of this process of voting, it inevitably initiates passionate debates amongst the users themselves regarding not only conduct within the subculture, but also regarding the projected image of the subculture to the "mainstream." One such discussion was sparked in January, 2014 titled "R/Trees is drawing a lot of attention to itself, can we discuss this?" (which garnered 6,518 upvotes and 4,000 downvotes, for a net of 2,518 points, indicating what would be considered a highly popular discussion thread). In the original post113, user jmmoffitt calls into question the nature of r/trees, the content it is producing, and how that image affects perceptions of the cannabis (sub)culture at large. He puts out a call, asking:
Fellow Ents, I have noticed that with the changing tides of legalization more and more of us find ourselves looking to express themselves in a public domain. This can be as simple as voting in an anonymous poll to writing articles for any form of news outlet. This is great, who better to dispel the infauxmation [sic] being distributed by the antiquated prohibitionists than a Cannabis user who cares about the cause? Showing we are not the burned out and unmotivated masses that the conservative media and heck even the liberal media has a tendency to portray us, is key to legitimating our cause nationally. But for every opportunity we have to make a legacy for our culture we also have the opportunity to look like a rehashed 4chan making absolute blundering idiots of ourselves.114
His comment is in specific regard to a series of comments left on a Fox News poll in which self- identified members of r/trees inundated the comment thread of the poll with aggressive, vulgar,
113 All citations of original posts and comments have been left in their unaltered form. All issues concerning misspellings or grammar come from the original post(s). Particularly egregious errors or intentional misspellings by the original poster are denoted with “sic.”
114 jmmoffitt, “R/Trees is drawing a lot of attention to itself, can we discuss this?” Reddit.com, posted January 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1vxueb/rtrees_is_drawing_a_lot_of_attention_to_itself/.
62 and immature content regarding the nature of r/trees–representations of the subreddit which jmmoffitt disagrees with. Elaborating on this, he states that:
With these recent Fox News polls I'm seeing many users leaving this sub[reddit]'s name in the comments. That's fine representing where your [sic] from, but why not post your actual location or even just state. It would do wonders seeing people checking in from all over the nation supporting legalization. This is opposed to spamming their comment wall in an attempt to troll them. By doing this we are no better than prohibitionists who espouse false facts and make themselves look idiotic through circular reasoning and illogical arguments.115
It is clear from this statement that jmmoffitt is deeply concerned with the politically oriented actions that members of r/trees should or should not be taking. Additionally he is concerned not only what the subcultural community of r/trees represents to itself (i.e., assumptions regarding the ways in which participants should conduct themselves internally) but how that image is portrayed to the world at large. Regarding the second of these two concerns, he continues to expand, stating his opinion:
I personally don't feel like r/trees is ready for mass public exposure. If put in the spotlight we'd get picked apart, we unfortunately are dominated with a number of less than mature users and I don't want that as argument fodder for the other side. Similarly, I feel like this sub[reddit] is a growing and dynamic group and I am not one to stifle growth but I would advise others not to draw attention to us. We use this as an almost hidden retreat for our love of trees. Please, going forward don't be so quick to put our safe haven in the prohibitionists sights. We are not ready formulaic [sic] scrutiny and honestly we may never be. Instead, represent where you're from it'll make us look far more legitimate.116
Here, we see jmmoffitt identify the risks of presenting a static narrative of the subculture to the dominant culture. He indicates that the subcultural community of r/trees is one whose borders need to be protected, clearly defined, and guarded against those who would tarnish its image through their individual attempts at representation. This is not for the goal of producing an
116 Ibid. 63
"authentic" cannabis (sub)culture, but rather for encouraging the best ways through which to affect "legitimate" changes in perception.
In response to jmmoffitt's post, and as one of the top-voted comments (with 55 points), user mgraunk generally agrees and further demonstrates the particular image that r/trees hopes to project of itself and the images, symbols, and narratives around which it defines itself. He states:
Everyone can argue about what /r/trees "means", but two things are for certain: 1. /r/trees is not /r/see. It is more than mindless entertainment and circlejerking about being high. 2. /r/trees is not /r/cannabis, /r/legalizeit, or /r/treesactivism. It's not merely a politically- motivated organization of ents. r/trees has many functions. One of these functions is indisputably the propagation of intelligent and factual discussion about the political status of marijuana. Other functions, however, are less serious. People come here for inspiring or humorous stories and art. People come here to share their experiences with marijuana, both positive and negative. People come here to boast of their accomplishments - the acquisition of a new piece, or a great new dealer they hooked up with. My point is, /r/trees is first and foremost a community. If we get too bogged down worrying about our "image", we lose the essence of the community and dissolve into competition and hatred. While your point about not spamming the comment sections of online polls is valid, it's important to remember that immature asshats will always be with us. We can spend our time trying to compensate for them, or we can ignore them and spread our own version of what it means to be a responsible cannabis user in modern society.117
His comment is interesting considering the apparent rejection of a central "image" that can comprise the cannabis community present on r/trees, although he fails to recognize that the only way through which members of the r/trees community can engage with each other is through symbols, images, and narratives. His general sentiment stands though: the subcultural community of r/trees should not be concerned with a particular image of itself, because those images are dynamic. He is not denying the role that images themselves play in the formulation of
117 mgraunk, “R/Trees is drawing a lot of attention to itself, can we discuss this?” Reddit.com, posted January 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1vxueb/rtrees_is_drawing_a_lot_of_attention_to_itself/. 64 a subcultural identity. That image consists of the diverse content that is allowed to be "uploaded" into the subreddit.
Additionally, this comment represents again the effects that the community and members of r/trees hope to enact onto the world. As demonstrated in the comment, a sentiment that is harbored in the community of r/trees is that of "spread[ing] our own version of what it means to be a responsible cannabis user in modern society."118 Jmmoffitt’s motivation to spread a positive image of the subculture, as well as the 6,518 upvoters that agreed with him, interacts with the
Fox News poll posters who are not as concerned with positive images of the subculture, or at least have different conceptions of positive. This interaction is an example of the dynamic process of constructing the subcultural repository.
In a direct response back to mgraunk, the original poster, jmmoffitt, elaborates on his discussion of the Fox News poll, and the methods he sees as useful in producing the effects he hopes to see manifest. He explains:
Also, one point I really want to hammer home is acting as the individual cannabis user while advocating for legalization. While we certainly peeved O'Reilly the other night, we missed an incredible opportunity to have hundreds if not thousands of individuals post something akin to: Full-time student at X College, in Y, Missouri. I am on the dean's list and I consume cannabis. Or full time professional in Pennsylvania, I love my job and I use Cannabis. We shouldn't worry about trying to bring down the pundits, regardless of how ignorant they are because when it comes down to it they are one vote. Instead, we should reasonably and respectfully prove their viewers that they are wrong by providing counterpoints and valid and earnest information that is pro-legalization, if you're looking to make a difference. I hope this clears up some misconceptions.119
119 jmmoffitt “R/Trees is drawing a lot of attention to itself, can we discuss this?” Reddit.com, posted January 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1vxueb/rtrees_is_drawing_a_lot_of_attention_to_itself/. 65
This post is a lucid example of the function of r/trees that is politically oriented. In the same spirit of Dr. Holland in The Pot Book, jmmoffitt is asking the members of r/trees to utilize the positionality of their own lives. By "outing" themselves as functioning participants in the public community at large, members of r/tress could affect political action (in the lower-case "p" sense), helping to break down the stigma still attached to cannabis (sub)culture. By not disassociating themselves from the subcultural identifications they hold, members of r/trees could add legitimacy to their calls for acceptance by not talking about cannabis (sub)culture as something
"out there" or done by "those Other people," but as something that positively utilizes their own subjectivities and associations with the culture.
In a sense, this last post by jmmoffitt is also an example of how content can be
"downloaded" from the subcultural repository via the assumption that someone, somewhere has utilized his advice and put these suggestions into practice. The second part of the process then, the "downloading" and application of this material, will be explored now.
I have claimed that the subcultural space of r/trees allows for participants of the subreddit to not only create the content that constitutes the subcultural repository, but to consume, or
"download" that content as well, thereby completing the cycle of subcultural identification. This process of "downloading" is a little more elusive and not quite as visually oriented as the process of "uploading" for several reasons. Firstly, it is hard to gauge and "see" what content users are viewing and/or saving to their own personal digital devices. Usage statistics of r/trees can show how often the webpage itself is frequented, but there is no way to track exactly which posts are 66 being viewed (save the ability to identify which ones users feel compelled to upvote/downvote).
Secondly, it is equally difficult to gauge the tangible effects that viewing posts has on the users themselves. Once an individual has viewed content on r/trees it is impossible to determine exactly how that information is utilized and manifested in his or her own life.
One way that we can conceptualize how this content may be applied to an individual’s lived experience can be observed through versions of the content itself. A post titled, "How to talk to your Republican uncle about weed" (which garnered 6,826 upvotes and 4,040 downvotes for a net of 2,786 points) gives a list of suggestions regarding how a member of r/trees might navigate encounters in their actual lives, much like the last post from jmmoffitt. The post is broken into categories of arguments including, "Small government," "Personal liberties," and
"Pro-business."120 It can be assumed that as readers of the post internalize the ideas being presented to them from the post, that they will then take and apply those ideas in their own lived realities. An individual who takes the time to read up on suggestions of how to more effectively engage those people he or she may come into contact with in real life can be assumed to actually want to enact that tangible effect in his or her life. Again though, this is based on assumption, and cannot be effectively gauged or measured.
Arguably, the most effective way to gauge how content is used once it is "downloaded" is by repetition of the cyclical process itself; gauging what is uploaded back into the subcultural repository. The implications of this cycle will be explored by way of expanding on the democratic nature of Reddit and how self-regulation allows for what is uploaded to determine (or not) the true and authentic essence of the subculture.
120 OneYearSteakDay, “How to talk to your Republican uncle about weed,” Reddit.com, posted February 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1w76np/how_to_talk_to_your_republican_uncle_about_weed/. 67
The Cannabis Culture: The Democracy of Authenticity
Certain issues do arise concerning the uploading and downloading process, the most obvious being that although the subcultural repository is dependent on the cyclical nature of uploading and downloading for its preservation, it doesn't always work in such a balanced way.
Often times, members of the subculture may withdraw or download from the repository without taking the initiative to upload back into it, or if they do, attempt to upload something that is not acceptable to the subculture. This can create an imbalance in multiple ways, firstly being that too much content is being uploaded, and therefore creates a "fight" over what is authentic to the subculture, and secondly, too much is being downloading, resulting in a stagnation of the subculture and a subsequent danger of inauthentic appropriation. Each of these will be explored in turn.
The first imbalance that can occur happens when too much content is being uploaded into the subculture and an ensuing battle over the true nature of the subculture can occur. This is a common trait of subcultures in general, and manifests in the classic examples of policing borders and boundaries, attempting to remain exclusive, and the desire to remain hidden from public view. When there are too many people attempting to upload their interpretations of the subculture into the repository, the reaction, as historically observed, is to reject those attempts, seal off the subculture, and downsize (or at the least cease growth). In this way, the subculture can better regulate its image, symbols, and narratives, resulting in a more cohesive and unified culture. 68
This process can be seen happening in the subculture of r/trees. In researching posts regarding the nature of the subculture, I have found discussions that are centered on concerns of the growing popularity of the subreddit and the tainting of the subculture that may occur as a result. A version of this has been seen already in jmmoffitt’s post concerning the visibility r/trees has been garnering. A more lucid example of how too much content can be uploaded is demonstrated through ParkerSNAFU’s post concerning the changing nature of the content on r/trees, especially, as participants in the post point out, since full legalization has occurred in the states of both Colorado and Washington. In the post titled, “I’m quitting r/Trees” (which garnered 3,725 upvotes and 1,484 downvotes for a net of 2,241 points), ParkerSNAFU expresses his concern over the changing nature of the subreddit. He states:
I’ve been a long time lover of this subreddit. It's brought me countless hours of entertainment and laughter. But I can no longer see the Mods121 destroy what r/Trees used to be. GIF's are apparently "no longer suitable for r/trees." They've taken away the comics, the gifs, and this self post will probably be taken down or down voted to hell. r/Trees used to have a unique feeling to it. It was a group of stoners, but original and creative stoners. Now if somebody was introduced to r/Trees, they'd just see a bunch of pictures of nugs122; and unless that person is a botanist, I doubt they'd be impressed or interested. I can't be the only one who thinks this way, can I? I mean, it actually makes me kind of angry. I don't like being angry, man. Either way, it doesn't matter. r/Trees has just changed too much for me. I just had to say goodbye to all my fellow Ents. Thank you for all the memories, Ents. I love you all.123
122 “Nuggets” – A term commonly used to refer to an intact portion of the bud of the cannabis plant that has not yet been prepared for consumption.
123 ParkerSNAFU, “I’m quitting r/Trees,” Reddit.com, posted February 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1xyje2/im_quitting_rtrees/.
This statement is met with a general attitude of solidarity and rejoicing, with a majority of the comments on the post being in support of ParkerSNAFU’s stance. Effectively capturing the overall sentiments is a comment by Big_Smelly_Willy who claims:
The reason /r/trees changed so much is because it exploded in popularity. Back when they allowed memes, i'll be honest, I fucking hated it, after a time. Because that was literally all you would see on this sub[reddit]. It was fine when there weren't a ton of people, because there wasn't a flood of comics. But once this sub[reddit] gained thousands of people, they were churning out posts faster, but with much lower quality. Basically, the younger generation took over the majority and changed /r/trees. To combat this, the mods got rid of many things that overall, I don't agree with, and i'm unhappy about them. But, I can see where they're coming from. But at this point, I think they are getting a bit ridiculous. /r/trees will NEVER be the same as it was before, maybe if you booted ~500,000 people off this sub[reddit], it could go back to normal, but that's not possible, or fair. Every once in a while, a post complaining about the state of /r/trees will pop up, and I say the same thing every time: Popularity has killed the old /r/trees, the mods try and get it back, with results that make them look like they're being unfair. It is a vicious cycle that will not end with everyone getting what they want. If you want a sub[reddit] that was like the old /r/trees, you would have to make a new one, set it to private, and slowly build it up at your own pace. This sub[reddit] got too big too fast, and its suffering because of it.124
This clearly expresses the concern of the subculture about its increased visibility and participation, which is apparently resulting in an influx of content that does not meet the approval of the self-proclaimed vanguards of the subculture. As this is occurring, the ensuing
"fight" over what is truly legitimate and authentic is being expressed by anger towards those who would see the subculture altered.
Another imbalance in the cyclical nature of the subcultural repository that can occur results when too much is being downloaded without a return of uploading. This can result in a stagnation of the subculture and presents a subsequent danger akin to cultural appropriation.
124 Big_Smelly_Willy, “I’m quitting r/Trees,” Reddit.com, posted February 2014, http://www.reddit.com/r/trees/comments/1xyje2/im_quitting_rtrees/. 70
When no content is being added to the repository, the same old content is all that is present. This means that when this old content is "downloaded," it is outdated in a sense. It is removed from the time and place in which it was uploaded and loses the relevant contextuality of its meaning.
When it is then downloaded again, it runs the risk of being inauthentically appropriated. Because whatever is being downloaded remains in the same form it displayed at the time of its creation, it has lost the meaning imbued into it via the context of its genesis. An obvious example of how this occurs can be seen by way of Bob Marley. An iconic figure of both Jamaica and reggae, Bob
Marley has also become the (literal) poster-child of cannabis culture. While it is undeniable he was certainly a proponent of cannabis, it is safe to assume that the Rastafarian meanings and intentions behind his support of cannabis have been misconstrued, adapted, and appropriated by the college freshman who buys a poster of his likeness to hang in their Any University dorm room. Bob Marley’s inability to provide his own input regarding his intentions represents a lack of uploading back into the subcultural repository. This is distinct from the fact that at one time,
Bob Marley did upload into the subcultural repository. In fact, his uploads have been some of the most significant and influential. But at this point, they have been downloaded so many times without an updated or revised upload that the ways in which they are being downloaded now are detached from their genesis and are, arguably, being inauthentically appropriated.
Handling the Imbalance – The Screening Process
In the specific context of r/trees, there are several ways through which these potential imbalances are mitigated. These have to do with the essential functions of Reddit itself, through which posts are filtered by both moderators and the voting system. Each of these systems serves to control what content actually becomes visible on the subreddit and consequently the content 71 that is available for download. Additionally, it allows for Reddit to achieve this in a horizontal and (nearly) democratic nature. Both the discrepancies in downloading or uploading are solved in some way by this same solution. The "fight" that results in too much content being uploaded, and debate over what is truly authentic, is controlled by the voting system on Reddit, which in turn serves to regulate what content is available for download.
Each subreddit has a certain number of individuals (it varies) known as moderators available to help control the subreddit, what content is posted, and resolve conflict amongst its members. These moderators sometimes face scrutiny regarding their actions and the regulations that they impose on the subcultural community of the subreddit as was revealed in
ParkerSNAFU's post, yet they play an important, if unappreciated, function. Moderators act as cultural gatekeepers to each subcultural community, taking a place on the front lines to help regulate as broadly as possible what can or cannot be included in the subcultural repository. This happens by way of implementing rules regarding what content can and cannot be posted to a subreddit. For instance, ParkerSNAFU’s post regarding the changing nature of the subreddit accuses the moderators of playing a role in this change. As previously mentioned, he claims that they are taking away various forms of content including GIFS125 and comics. If that content is posted, the moderators reserve the right to remove it from the subreddit. This prevents it from being visible to the rest of the community, and the content does not earn its place in the subcultural repository. This can create animosity towards the moderators, and has been seen, accusations over the true democratic nature of the community and its authentic content flair. To mitigate this process, the voting system of Reddit allows what content is posted to be controlled by the members themselves. Just because something is posted, and allowed to be so, doesn’t
125 “Graphics Interchange Format,” a type of short, repetitive animation. 72 guarantee its visible place in the subcultural repository. First, it must pass the test of democratic voting, as will be explored presently.
Assuming content has met the criteria of the moderators and is allowed to be posted to the subreddit, individual content attempting to be submitted and approved to the subcultural repository must be accepted by the existing community. There is no method for determining which content will or will not be accepted by the community–only observing what has been approved gives any insight into this process. This brings up an interesting feature of subcultural communities, one that is not necessarily encouraging to the moderators or any other person who self-identifies as a cultural gatekeeper. That is the simple fact that there is no exact formula or criteria for a subcultural community. If anything has been demonstrated to this point, it is that subcultures are not static–they are persistently transitory and thrive on adaptation and evolution.
This means that whatever persists in the subcultural repository is that which constitutes the subculture and that which is authentic. Harkening back to the example of safety pins and what they represented for the punk subculture, it is not the safety pins that make punk. If safety pins stop being associated with punk, it doesn’t mean that punk is dead! It just means that whatever persists in the subcultural repository is now the essence of that subculture.
Applied to r/trees, and subreddits in general, it means that whatever is accepted to the repository by way of democratic voting is what is genuine and authentic to the subculture. There may be nay-sayers and those who claim to represent the "true" and "authentic" culture, but the essence of a subculture does not lie in what objects and symbols any individual claims to be the truest. Further, it does not exist in groups of people or their relational perceptions of each other or of themselves. This is what Sandberg means when he tells us that we should shift our focus from viewing subcultures as groups of people. Subcultures exist for and by individuals and the 73 groups they constitute, but are not contained by the judgments of any one individual. Though groups of people are ultimately required for the democratic process to determine what will be allowed into a subcultural repository, and ultimately for the existence of the subculture itself (as there are no subcultures without people to manifest them), the essence of the subculture is not contained within its individuals. The essence of a subculture is whatever resides in the subcultural repository. 74
It has been argued by some, such as Michele Willson, that the nature of online communities actually prevents them from being true, (politically) engaged communities. The technologically mediated communities of the internet serve to distance people from each other, despite the geographical boundaries that the technology transcends, and reduces their communication and engagement, according to Willson, to, “paradoxically, a ‘thinning’ of the complexities of human engagement to the level of one-dimensional transactions and a detaching of the user from the political and social responsibilities of the ‘real space’ environment.”126 She continues that, “This general movement towards a separation or abstraction of community from the political possibilities of real space removes any necessity for direct, embodied, political action. The depth of commitment to others within a community also declines, questioning the possibility of responsibility for the Other.”127 This could not be farther from the truth in the community of r/trees and in relation to my revised version of subcultural theory and cultural studies in general.
As has been demonstrated clearly by now, cultural studies is and should be inherently political (at the least, if not Political). Technological mediations such as r/trees serve to further connections and solidarities, creating the platforms through which people can engage, collaborate, and translate their discussions into real world effects. Whether it is the ability of those on r/trees to connect and discuss the latest political trends in the legalization movement, or to foster a discussion over how the cannabis community should represent itself in public, the
126 Michele Willson, “Community in the Abstract: A political and ethical dilemma?” in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (New York: Routledge, 2007), 223.
127 Ibid. 75 dialogue and collaborations that take place on r/trees have a noticeable intention to enact change onto the real world. Additionally, the members of r/trees clearly demonstrate the ultimate desire for visibility of cannabis (sub)culture albeit on their own terms. They seek social acceptance but, for the meantime, are complicit to have a safe haven in r/trees. Judging by the tone and theme of these highly popular threads however, this appears to be a temporary solution. When the time and message are right, r/trees will choose to make itself more public, and harkening back to Dr.
Holland's call, will out themselves as "law-abiding and responsible employees and employers, parents, citizens, and, most of all, taxpayers."128 As has been mentioned, these actual effects can be difficult to quantify, but their virtual presence does not make them any less clear, real, or intentional.
Networked Mediation: Engaged Cultural Studies
The definition of what it means to be a subculture has been effectively changed and the unique ways that this manifests via the internet have been explained but one thing remains to be explored. That is the task of bringing this argument full circle and making the point that somehow this study, as well as its objects of study, have been representative of an "engaged cultural studies."
The academy must not be seen as antithetical to an organic social movement or subcultural community: there is nothing inherent in the concept of institutionalized disciplines that prevents the actual scholars of them from participating in them. I do, however, believe that cultural studies scholars are far better equipped for negotiating these transitions. The academy is where we hone
128 Julie Holland, M.D., ed., The Pot Book (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2010), 348. 76 our skills as intellectuals. We try out ideas, practice saying them, articulating them, making sure we are acutely aware of how we feel about the world and where we situate our stance in relation to it. We learn the difference between “understanding the politics of intellectual work and substituting intellectual work for politics.”129 This self-reflection is not checked at the door when we leave our offices and classrooms though. We then take that refined sense of Self and World with us into our own lived realities. This is my inspiration and motivation for acknowledging my own subjectivity and positionality here. In this way, our academic work informs our intellectual selves, we become aware of our desires to enact change in our worlds, and we live out the contents of our own books.
Regarding the overall nature of the project, I believe that there is nothing more engaged than approaching and tackling the issues relevant to the contemporary moment and to one's own positionality. I recognize the limitations of this study in terms of its longevity, among other things. At some point, I do believe that discussions of cannabis legalization will be of a distant past. In that way, this study may become irrelevant in its contributions to that contemporary moment, but it will not be wholly useless. If anything, it will serve as a snapshot of the here and now, cataloging what was occurring at this time, and providing the resources for future studies that will call on historical accounts to support and strengthen their claims. I also believe that this study will remain relevant in its discussion of cannabis (sub)culture. If what I have observed, proposed, and theorized here has any truth to it, I am confident that the subculture will live on, sustained by its subcultural repository, and will not dissipate in the face of legalization, acceptance, and normalization. It will be a transformed one, a modified one, and a continually transient one, but the uploading of new content to the repository will be subject to the same
129 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (New York: Routledge, 2007), 44. 77 processes described here. I have not made a claim for any particular content that represents the cannabis or r/trees subculture, and what I have used here as example is just that–example. The ultimate point I’ve wished to demonstrate is the processes through which new content is created and consumed and the places it is stored in the time during those processes. It is this subcultural repository, and the ways through which content is uploaded to it and downloaded from it, that represents the true essence and substance of subculture as a concept and any particular subculture.
Beyond discussion of subculture as a theory and methodology, I also sought to demonstrate the unique aspects that r/trees brings to the study of subculture. By the nature of the internet, r/trees represents elements of subcultures that might not be able to fully manifest without technological mediation. In fact, it is the nature of the internet itself that allows for a much more democratic, inclusive, and visible subculture. Manuel Castells helps us to see this point more clearly. Concerning the nature of the internet itself, he “contend[s] that the Internet provides the organizational communication platform to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy. This is because the technology of the Internet embodies the culture of freedom, as showing in the historical record of its development (Castells 2001).”130 Though Castells is not directly referencing or discussing subcultures as they have been defined historically and within the confines of this study, the groups he sees the internet as helping collaborate and manifest democratically, horizontally, and rhizomatically are similar to the definition of subcultures I have put forth here. What is of use here from his statement though is that the nature of the internet itself provides the space and tools through which groups seeking to collaborate, define, and manifest themselves are able to do so via the internet with minimal hierarchical mediation. In
130 Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 231. 78 this way, r/trees, and Reddit in general, provide a unique and useful tool for subcultures.
Subcultures may not depend entirely on Reddit, or the internet, for their genesis or survival, but these tools do provide an infinitely useful means through which to better demarcate boundaries, define borders, and collaborate on the (perceived to be) true and authentic nature of a subculture.
These aspects, among others, have not been addressed in current literature on the subject.
An absence of cultural studies scholars from the discussion on cannabis culture leaves the picture painted by academic research to be one of a problem of social deviance and medical issues. By removing the agenda to provide solutions for social and physical ailments, I hope I have demonstrated that a cultural studies analysis can provide a unique perspective on a currently important part of American culture as well as provide a space for this subculture to speak for itself without the distortion of statistical analysis and hidden agendas. It was in this spirit that I have attempted to be political and not Political. There is no shortage of advocates for and against cannabis, in medical or recreational forms, and I have not sought to counter or agree with those claims here. I have merely sought to allow the images, symbols, and, primarily, narratives of cannabis culture to shine through, in the unique avenue that my own positionality as both a member of the subculture and a cultural studies scholar enables.
As this topic and subculture gains momentum and projects itself into the discussions of the masses, it will be crucial to understand its history, intentions, motivations, and aspirations in order to fully comprehend a situation that is easy to write off as social deviance, but is one that does not appear to be relenting. If we, as a society, are to adequately grasp the impacts and implications of cannabis (sub)culture we must not do ourselves a disservice by allowing only limited interpretations and perspectives to dominate the discussion. While there has been no dedicated scholarship to understanding cannabis (sub)culture as just that, one theme has proved 79 to be a consistent thread throughout the research: the popularity and acceptance of cannabis is on a trajectory that will take its discussion to a much larger audience. While it would be foolish to say, “This is the time and place cannabis will be made fully legal and gain widespread acceptance!” as this has been heralded in every generation, I do not think it is farfetched to propose that its discussion is on the precipice of widespread public participation. In preparation for, and in contribution to, these discussions, then, a personally “outed,” politically engaged cultural studies approach to cannabis (sub)culture is desperately needed.
I have sought to begin inserting that voice into the dialogue here. By using the case study of Reddit I have attempted to not just present an example of subcultural theory and how it manifests, but also to draw a metaphor for how all subcultures work. Additionally, this entire study exists as what I have called for from the beginning: a study that views cannabis culture independent from drug culture as a whole, as it exists in the world, and not viewing it through the lens only of medicine, politics, or sociological deviance or resistance. In their own ways, these disciplines and modes of inquiry load their studies and conclusions with preconceived, often hidden value-laden, notions of what cannabis culture represents. This is not to discredit what they offer to the dialogue, but to acknowledge the places and gaps in which they fall short. This paper has the intention of beginning to fill that void.
As alluded to, I recognize the need for more work in the spirit of cultural studies – work that addresses the places I have inevitably fallen short here, including taking more Politically motivated stances and also the deeply rooted issues of race that have historically been tied to drugs of any kind. I would suggest that the attempt to separate cannabis culture from drug culture as a whole entity could prove useful for those studies. Equally important though will be the attempt of those scholars to locate themselves within the space of their studies, to claim 80 legitimacy through association, to embrace the useful aspects of subjectivity, and to continue pushing cultural studies forward into new and contemporarily relevant studies that both document and are representative of the engaged vision it has for itself. 81
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