Goth: Undead Subculture

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Since it first emerged from Britain’s punk-rock scene in the late 1970s, goth subculture has haunted postmodern culture and society, reinventing itself inside and against the mainstream. Goth: Undead Subculture is the first collection of scholarly essays devoted to this enduring yet little examined cultural phenomenon. Twenty-three essays from various disciplines explore the music, cinema, television, fashion, literature, aesthetics, and fandoms associated with the subculture. They examine goth’s many dimensions—including its melancholy, androgyny, spirituality, and perversity—and take readers inside locations in Los Angeles, Austin, Leeds, London, Buffalo, New York City, and Sydney. A number of the contributors are or have been participants in the subculture, and several draw on their own experiences.

The volume’s editors provide a rich history of goth, describing its play of resistance and consumerism; its impact on class, race, and gender; and its distinctive features as an “undead” subculture in light of post-subculture studies and other critical approaches. The essays include an interview with the distinguished fashion historian Valerie Steele; analyses of novels by Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, and Nick Cave; discussions of goths on the Internet; and readings of iconic goth texts from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to James O’Barr’s graphic novel The Crow. Other essays focus on gothic music, including seminal precursors such as Joy Division and David Bowie, and goth-influenced performers such as the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson. Gothic sexuality is explored in multiple ways, the subjects ranging from the San Francisco queercore scene of the 1980s to the increasing influence of fetishism and fetish play. Together these essays demonstrate that while its participants are often middle-class suburbanites, goth blurs normalizing boundaries even as it appears as an everlasting shadow of late capitalism.

Contributors: Heather Arnet, Michael Bibby, Jessica Burstein, Angel M. Butts, Michael du Plessis, Jason Friedman, Nancy Gagnier, Ken Gelder, Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Joshua Gunn, Trevor Holmes, Paul Hodkinson, David Lenson, Robert Markley, Mark Nowak, Anna Powell, Kristen Schilt, Rebecca Schraffenberger, David Shumway, Carol Siegel, Catherine Spooner, Lauren Stasiak, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock

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Editorial Reviews

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Goth: Undead Subculture is a very engaging read—a nice mélange of ethnographic anecdote, cultural criticism, and historical analysis—in which a multidisciplinary crew of contributors analyzes an important and complex subculture through its fashions, music, dancing, literature, sexual practices, aesthetic ideals, theatrical displays, historical precedents, and ideologies.”—Robert Walser, author of Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music

“Goth creates its distinctive way of life by appropriating materials from a vast array of cultural phenomena—post-punk music, gothic literary tradition, pre-Christian mythology, sexual nonconformity, aesthetic avant-gardes—all of which it adopts primarily as style. Goth style is thus both dizzyingly heterogeneous and instantly recognizable. It is hard to imagine a single book that could do this subculture justice; yet by assembling contributors from a range of disciplines and judiciously including many voices of subcultural participants themselves, Goth: Undead Subculture manages to depict, while also reflecting critically on, this subculture’s enduring appeal. This collection will be the definitive work on its topic.”—Tim Dean, author of Beyond Sexuality

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822339212
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 456
  • Sales rank: 806,115
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Lauren M. E. Goodlad is Associate Professor of English and a member of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society.

Michael Bibby is Professor of English at Shippensburg University. He is the author of Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era and the editor of The Vietnam War and Postmodernity.

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Read an Excerpt



Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3908-3

Chapter One




Gothic Subculture and the Ambivalence of Misogyny and Resistance

You took delight in taking down All my shielded pride Until exposed becomes my darker side Puckering up and down some avenue of sin Too chapped to ride, they're worth a try If only for the old times, cold times Don't go waving your pretentious love -"Dark Entries," Bauhaus

The lyrics of the opening track on Bauhaus's debut album, In the Flat Field, are a fitting opening, because they signal the characteristic ambivalence of the gothic "underground." As someone who has frequented the gothic scene for almost fifteen years, and as someone who has worked to provide a more sympathetic portrayal of the subculture elsewhere, I can easily say that the "shielding pride" of gothic performativity makes it difficult for those on the outside to understand the complexity of being goth, including a recognition of a realdark side (Gunn 1999a and 1999b). Although the subculture is resistant stylistically, sexually, and sometimes politically, because goth's resistant gestures are premised on a kind of lifestyle irony, they often unwittingly succumb to other social ills. In this chapter, I argue that gothic performativity demonstrates the dynamic ways in which people resist the cultural mainstream in spaces of ambivalence.

In order to capture the ambivalence of resistance, I first suggest that one must pursue subcultural research as an attempt to strike a balance between ethnographic portrayal and cultural critique. I then offer a description of gothic subculture constructed from interviews with self-identified goths. Next, I redescribe goth using recent theories of the gaze, which help to describe how gothic style is simultaneously a force of resistance and hetero-normative recapitulation. I conclude by discussing the necessity of critical or dialectical ethnography.

Two Approaches to Subculture

As many subculture scholars are aware, there are two general approaches to the qualitative study of subcultural groups. What I will call the "anthropological" approach tends to emphasize ethnology and participant observation, often with an eye toward producing empathetic accounts of subcultural resistance from the bottom up. These accounts are usually highly descriptive and tend to venerate subcultural subjects as exhibiting behaviors typical and expected of them given the norms of their culture. The often criticized celebratory tincture of ethnography is in part a result of the reflexive and self-critical modes that began to emerge with the works of Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, and others in the mid- to late 1980s (see Geertz 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986). Central to these new modes of ethnography is an emphasis on the inevitable rhetoricity of ethnographic descriptions, the inseparability of the "poetic and political," the interpenetration of "academic and literary genres" of reportage, and the necessarily subjective, socially constructive nature of all descriptive writing (Clifford 1986, 2). Such commitments led to a profound interest in the reflexive modes of ethnography first introduced by feminist scholars, and a deep suspicion of the authoring self. Consequently, subcultural ethnography of music-centered subculture has tended to represent subjects with measured reverence and respect, frequently describing practices in which subjects actively resist dominant ideologies.

On the other hand, what I will call the "sociological" approach tends to replace ethnography with abstract, structuralist (frequently Marxian or materialist) readings. Here the individual subject's autonomy is muted in favor of underlying determinants such as ideology. These analyses proceed "textually" by reading the more spectacular emblems of subculture (e.g., "style") as symptomatic of larger social arrangements. Of these sociological approaches, the most exemplary and widely read is Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). Hebdige argues that once a subculture is made visible in mainstream society, it becomes commodified, diffused, and, as a result, is robbed of its resistant power. Hebdige shows how punk subculture's emblems were stripped of oppositional potential as they were peddled to mass audiences as "exotica" (95). Such a top-down approach often avoids consulting self-identified subcultural group members because they are not understood as being conscious participants in the process of commodification. Since top-down approaches are primarily interested in social structures and ideology, it is not necessary to consult individuals whose agency is compromised by their being unwitting members of the system.

Such Marxian or post-Marxian perspectives remain important to subcultural scholarship, much of which concerns the formation of social identities. Critics want to explore how, for example, a goth constructs a self that is counter to her interpellation in dominant culture, how she disidentifies with the mainstream, and whether such attempts are, in the long run, successful. In so doing, critics of the sociological stripe seek to articulate ideological effects that escape the conscious awareness of subcultural adherents. Unfortunately, however, the latter perspective has led many scholars to discount the value of ethnography. Lawrence Grossberg, one of the most vocal opponents of ethnography in the study of musical subcultures, argues that "the significance of music is not in the music, nor in the fan," but in a framing social system or structure (1986, 52). Because music's meaning is never "solely musical," and music's effects reside outside of specific acts of listening, one cannot, he argues, approach a music subculture "by using anyone's experience of it, or even any collective definition of that experience" (52). Consequently, focus on individual members of a music subculture should give way to discussions of the group and its social and historical context.

Because both perspectives have obvious advantages and disadvantages, there have been many attempts to wed them. There is a way, for example, of incorporating individual ethnography without either reducing or reifying individual experience. Theoretical analysis should serve as a tool for understanding ethnographic particulars; it should not serve as a replacement for them. To be sure, one must be careful not to allow ethnography to lapse into unreflective thick description. What is needed is a balance between the top-down and bottom-up approaches to subcultural study, and this essay attempts to work toward such a synthesis by offering both ethnography and structural critique.

Enthymematic Darkness: Goth Self-Representation and Identity

In both research and recreation over the past several years, I have surveyed and interviewed a number of subcultural adherents about the meaning of goth. Most of those with whom I spoke tended to break down goth or gothic into the intimately intertwined categories of music, style, and scene (Gunn 1998, 64-104). The rhetorical trope that links these three elements together is dark or darkness, which was ubiquitous in answers to questions such as, "What is gothic music?" or "What is gothic style?" For example, in a formal survey I conducted in 1996, descriptions of gothic music almost always included the term dark. Consider the following remarks from different individuals.

I describe [the music] as reflecting a dark side of one's personality.

I would use the clichés of dark, angsty [sic], representing alienation from the majorities [sic] value system creating taste in music and art.

I guess it sounds kind of dark.

It's darker, sadder, it has more tendencies toward free expression.

[Gothic music is] a darker version of progressive music.

The music could be described as being dark, lyrical, and usually quite intense.

[Gothic music is] dark, eerie ... "gothic" is the perfect image of what it is.

Adjectives less frequently used to describe the music were deep, depressing, romantic, passionate, and intense.

In a musical context, the repetition of dark serves well to illustrate Roland Barthes's observation that, when faced with the experience of music, we are doomed to "the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective" (1988, 179). Yet the adjective functions in a manner that Barthes perhaps overlooked: people tend to describe their favorite music with adjectives that they also use to describe themselves. When used to describe gothic music, dark is deliberately ambiguous because it functions enthymematically, or in a way that allows each individual fan to assign meanings to dark that reflect his or her individual experience and needs. At one level, the obscurity of dark bespeaks goths' perception of themselves as unique and impervious to fixed labels. Dark music is seen to signify introspection, depth of thought, and, ultimately, intelligence: "The lyrics seem to have more depth than common 'alternative music,'" says one fan. Another notes that gothic music is "dark, emotional, intelligent music. Generally [it is] more composed and creative." Note how "dark" as a description of music becomes a larger category directly articulated to self in this person's remarks: "I like gothic music because I have always been attracted to dark subject matters, and I feel [as though] I can relate to this genre better than the 'alternative' music that is out there. I like the passion, lyricism, and that the music is influenced by literature and philosophy." Hence, descriptions of music are also self-descriptions: the significations of darkness are drawn on to create fantasies of identity that help to sustain a persona distinct from a perceived mainstream.

At another level, "dark" is inclusive of an experience of social alienation caused by one's intellectual, artistic, or sexual traits in a mainstream context. One fan notes that she is gothic because outside of the subcultural scene her intelligence is a handicap to acceptance by others: "I love and value the intellectualism that I've seen, especially among my goth friends (grad students) and some of the threads on alt.gothic [an Internet newsgroup] about films or books. It is a highly literate subculture.... The scene seems to attract people who are good readers.... there doesn't seem to be a stigma attached to being intelligent and there is a lot of creativity.... Intellectualism is an asset." Similarly, another fan notes that he enjoys the gothic community because it allows him to express his artistic tendencies. He said, "I'm into art, in general, you know, all kinds of art, I practice every type of art possible, and the gothic scene, well, the aesthetic is very appealing to me," all the while gesturing with overly dramatic flourishes for humorous effect.

This sense of feeling alien to or shunned by mainstream culture also bleeds into the perception that goths, particularly male goths, are gay, another category of identity that remains negatively coded in American society. Perhaps for this reason, many gothic club nights are held in "non-goth" gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered spaces across the country. In part, the mainstream recognition that goth is perceived as queer in general (that is, deviant from heteronormative notions of identity) inspires many goths to celebrate the subculture's inclusiveness of a broad range of sexual identities. Consider the following remarks:

I don't like to categorize myself. The only categories I would put myself in are female and bisexual. Being bisexual I have some difficulties in ... [respondent does not finish her sentence]. Gender membership [that is, whether one is a "man" or a "woman"] does not play a role [in the gothic scene].

I consider myself one of the "freaks"; one of the "shunned by the popular kids" kind of people ... I consider myself a feminist of sorts, I'm bisexual, so I consider myself part of the lesbigay community.

Everyone's so worried about being called a homosexual and stuff, and there [referring to the Minneapolis club, Ground Zero] no one gives a shit. I mean, I'm dressed goth with my little black gloves and stuff, but I'm not gay.

In gothic scenes men find a space in which to alleviate anxieties about living up to masculine norms, as they provide opportunities to explore androgynous modes of dress and behavior. Self-described straight male goths often don the classic gothic ensemble of a black goth band T-shirt and a flowing black skirt. Dark thus signifies the ambiguities of goth gender and the polymorphous perversity of goth sexuality. The ambiguities of goth gender, and the (seeming) polymorphous perversity of goth sexuality, affords women a comfortable space in which to be intelligent and artistic as well-sometimes also "feminist" or sexually "aggressive." Finally, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender goths feel comfortable in the gothic scene because all kinds of sexual identity are embraced.

All kinds of identity are embraced, that is, except the most dogged, macho, active male/passive female varieties, particularly when dress or behavior do not comport with the dark goth aesthetic. When a gay man wearing a cowboy outfit appeared at a club during a gothic night in Minneapolis a few years ago, the usual regulars were visibly amused and annoyed. As the cowboy commenced to dance to the Tones on Tail song "Go!," replete with a lasso prop, some black-lipsticked mouths were agape in (playful) horror; initially many of the club regulars thought that this individual's blatant violation of the norms of the scene was funny, but it soon became an annoyance when the cowboy stayed to dance for more than one song. Similarly, when a very inebriated woman dressed provocatively in a red vinyl miniskirt (in a style more hard rock than goth) began writhing on the dance floor in sexually suggestive ways, the club regulars began laughing and heckling until she was escorted outside by the bouncers. She was heckled both for her drunkenness and for her inability to observe the "dark," gothic dance-floor code; her style of sexual posturing was not gothic but more akin to the striptease movements of scantily clad women in hard rock videos. To be sure, women dancing provocatively (especially with other women) is permitted in gothic spaces, but their dancing should not resemble the postures and movements more typical of other scenes.

That some costumes and behavior are not welcome in gothic clubs speaks to the darkness of gothic style. Just as goths stress the darkness of gothic music or identity, so they describe gothic style (fashion and bodily movement in gothic spaces, such as dancing) as "black" or "dark" as well. Gothic modes of dance are typically described as "dramatic" and "creepy," as are gothic fashions. One fan helpfully summarized gothic costuming:

there are a range of styles that you could consider gothic, but it's a bit difficult to qualify exactly.

1) BLACK: All black or predominately black clothing.

2) VICTORIAN: Victorian-era styling or details-lace-up bodice, "pirate" shirts, hook-and-eye fasteners, hats, long coats, etc.

3) FABRICS: Sensuous fabrics-rich, textured, lace, velvet, netting, ruffles, leather.

4) DARK SIDE: Vampire-like or witch-like attire. However, Bela Lugosi's tux and cape or a pointy witch hat would be very, very tacky in the extreme.

5) MAKE-UP: Using make-up to achieve the "death look"-pale white skin, black-eye liner, black nail polish. Could also avoid the sun to help with the pale white skin thing.

6) HAIR: dyed/bleached-especially black, auburn, or white-blond. 7) FOOT WEAR: Doc Martins [sic], combat boots, witch boots (pointy heel, laces), black shoes with silver buckles.

8) EYE WEAR: small, wire-framed glasses, possible tinted contact lenses in unnaturally vivid green, blue, or purple.


Excerpted from GOTH Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction / Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby 1

I. Genders

Dark Admissions: Gothic Subculture and the Ambivalence of Misogyny and Resistance / Joshua Gunn 41

Queens of the Damned: Women and Girls’ Participation in the Two Gothic Subcultures / Kristen Schilt 65

Peri Gothous: On the Art of Gothicizing Gender / Trevor M. Holmes 79

Men in Black: Androgyny and Ethics in The Crow and Fight Club / Lauren M. E. Goodlad 89

II. Performances

This Modern Goth (Explains Herself) / Rebecca Schraffenberger 121

Playing Dress Up: David Bowie and the Roots of Goth / David Shumway and Heather Arnet 129

Undead Fashion: Nineties Style and the Perennial Return of Goth / Catherine Spooner 143

“Goth Damage” and Melancholia: Reflections on Posthuman Gothic Identities / Michael du Plessis 155

III. Localities

“To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant”: Music and Death in Zero City, 1982–84 / Mark Nowak 171

“Ah am witness to its authenticity”: Gothic Style in Postmodern Southern Writing / Jason K. Friedman 190

The (Un)Australian Goth: Notes toward a Dislocated National Subject / Ken Gelder 217

IV. Artifacts

Atrocity Exhibitions: Joy Division, Factory Records, and Goth / Michael Bibby 233

Material Distinctions: A Conversation with Valerie Steele / Jessica Burstein 257

Geek/Goth: Remediation and Nostalgia in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands / Robert Markley 277

The Authentic Dracula: Bram Stoker’s Hold on Vampiric Genres / Nancy Gagnier 293

V. Communities

“When you kiss me, I want to die”: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gothic Family Values / Lauren Stasiak 307

The Cure, the Community, the Contempt! / Angel M. Butts 316

“We are all individuals, but we’ve all got the same boots on!”: Traces of Individualism within a Subcultural Community / Paul Hodkinson 322

VI. Practices

That Obscure Object of Desire Revisited: Poppy Z. Brite and the Goth Hero as Masochist / Carol Siegel 335

God’s Own Medicine: Religion and Parareligion in U.K. Goth Culture / Anna Powell 357

Gothic Fetishism / Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock 375

The Aesthetic Apostasy / David Lenson 398

References 405

Contributors 425

Index 429

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2012

    Insightful and Eclectic Collection of Articles

    This book is great for scholars, goths, and the goth-curious. Topics range from sociological phenomena to literary criticism. I was highly interested in all sections of the book because it proved an insightful resource into a subculture that not everyone can experience as intimately as some of the essayists do.

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