Pop-Goth and Post Goth: Two Readings of Two Post-Gothic Fashions

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on November 22, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , ,

It is doubtless that today’s Gothic fashion sells and sells in a particularly Gothic fashion. The Pop-Gothic culture reflected in the clothes – where the cute is made morbid and the morbid made cute, exemplified by many a headless Hello Kitty – serves to parody late twentieth-century sub-cultural manifestations of Gothic’s manufactured morbidity, its over-reliance upon interpretations of the Gothic as a source of gloom and as a style or social practice suitable for teenage transformation. Pop-Goth, according to its scholars, signifies both an end to Gothic subjectivity through style, and its rebirth: the death of its narratives through its saturation in fashion, film and other special effects, and its return through the spectral effects in a protracted performance of Pop-Gothic consumerism. At the end of Gothic, Fred Botting states that

Gothic dies, divested of its excesses, of its transgressions, horrors and diabolical laughter, of its brilliant gloom and rich darkness, of its artificial and suggestive forms. Dying, of course, might just be the prelude to other spectral returns. (180)

Pop-Goth, in demonstrating the ‘death of Goth’ through its performative mourning, reveals a series of Gothic narratives of and upon the Post-Goth subject. The icons of Pop-Goth fashion, the keychained Evil Bunny, Emily the Strange and Living Dead Doll, allow their owners or wearers to mourn the death of Goth whilst at the same time celebrate its always-dying, forever-undead cultural status. Like the Gothic it ironically mourns, and celebrates, Pop-Goth’s performance is both supported by and simultaneously resistant to, twenty-first century global capitalism. Of the Living Dead Dolls, Catherine Spooner notes that:

it is precisely the conjunction between innocence and experience, the cute and the horrid, that makes the dolls so exciting to their collectors. As their oxymoronic name suggests, the dolls are inherently paradoxical, living and dead, inhabiting a series of borderlines in a paradigmatically Gothic fashion. Their contradictory natures enable their collectors symbolically to resolve the contradictoriness of their own position as rebellious consumers, who wish to signal their difference from conventional lifestyle choices at the same time as they participate in the process of consumption. (152-3)

Since the mid-noughties research into Pop-Gothic culture, Pop-Goth itself has, arguably, become as homogenised as the other products that it once sought to distance itself from. As retail outlets such as Claire’s and Spencer’s incorporate Gothic into their range of overall fashion, the difference between conventional and unconventional lifestyles, between rebellious and conformist consumers, collapses; the contradictions and oxymorons of Pop-Gothic culture are ironed out as Pop-Goth becomes interchangeable with and interrelated to club, punk-esque, rave, gamer, and college humour.

In the recent absence of Pop-Goth saying anything Gothic or about the Gothic, are scholars reading this process of expanded audiences for expanded profits as a Gothic performance? If Pop-Goth cannot read, it can at least be read.

However, just as Botting suggests, the death of Gothic always leads to its recycling and ultimate revival. Two reanimated styles fashioned from the cultural and material detritus of the post-millennial death of Goth, Cyberpunk and Steampunk, revive Gothic narrative from within, from their actual performance as fashion with something to say.

Steampunk Retro-gressions of Technology and Empire

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Steampunk’s style displays a love of Victorian and Edwardian period fashion, but also outwardly superimposes onto it an exaggerated and fetishised fantasy version of the industrial technology which underpinned those eras. Just as Gothic novels rendered prosthetic and pleasurable the architecture, technology and socio-political sentiment of the history that inspired them, so too does Steampunk fashion a ‘…world, instead of discovering electricity and silicone chips, [which] continues to be paused in the 1800’s, powered by steam and clockwork’ (Hewitt 8).  Steampunk is a sub-culture, and its participants engage with an imaginary alternative world in which multiple and at times self-consciously contradictory fantasies can be realised. Steampunk uses its style as a means to both re-imagine the past and re-fashion the present. People in today’s everyday faceless world of global communication can reorganise and redefine themselves through Steampunk communities and fantasy historical narratives.  They democratise and re-stage the privileges of Empire with its Jules Verne-esque adventures and expeditions to unknown or exotic worlds, and they take the technology of this alternative world to craft unique versions of today’s corporate tools of faceless globalization.

Steampunk’s ‘paused world’ of technology then, through fashion and performance, is also dynamic: a world in which the actual Victorian past is freed from its frozen history of racial intolerance, colonialism and gender inequalities, and where a space of continually evolving play is opened up. In constantly re-inventing itself, Steampunk also reorganises the imaginative gaze through which we look at the past, the present and the future, perhaps influencing mainstream-oriented culture, design and technology through which progress is marked.

Cyberpunk Critiques of Technological Progress

Steampunk, generally, invests its period-inspired technology with a sense of positivism and playful social progress. The Cyberpunk identity, on the other hand, suggests that technology has brought about new divisions in society: between information rich and information poor, between those who can afford technology and those who cannot, and ultimately, between those who are human and those who are technologically transhuman. The Cyberpunk community performs their subjectivity as inseparable from technology. Technology, rather than as a tool to be crafted, wielded and worn by man for the improvement of his lot, instead organises society through its own means and on its own terms, operating sub-dermally or sub-microscopically as electrical impulses passing around a series of microchips embedded upon and beneath the skin. The relationship between technology and humanity here is reversed to that of Steampunk; Cyberpunk performance demonstrates a submissive relationship to the machine, where the machine modifies human biological functions to improve or remove them.

Cyberpunk body-modification resembles the body-modification, such as tattoos and body piercings, of previous Gothic subcultures. Here, however, such modification serves to imagine problems resulting from the co-existence of man and machine in one body through the performance of this artificial or otherwise altered body, a body whose humanity has been technologically revoked, emulated or irreversibly changed. Cyberpunk’s science-fictional imagination, literally projected onto this performative, fashionable body, points towards actual problems in today’s technologically saturated society and computer technology’s unofficial role in aiding criminal acts, from identity fraud to phone hacking. Cyberpunks often refer to themselves as hackers: fictional characters who use technology (or are used by it) to gain unlawful access to secure data. The presence and performance of Cyberpunk today reveals the presence of actual hackers and the real threat they bring to today’s digitally maintained personal security. Recent Cyberpunk videogames, including Uplink, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the upcoming reboot of the Syndicate series, also science-fictionally reconstruct the theme of hacking, allowing players themselves to perform the role of the hacker.  Ben O’Donnell of Electronic Arts and Andreas Gschwari of Starbreeze Studios, the teams behind the Syndicate reboot, said in an interview with online gaming site GameCentral that:

the way the original Syndicate and this one [the reboot] works is that civilians are cattle, they’re consumers. That’s all they are. It’s up to you [the player] whether you mow through them with a mini-gun or if you just ignore them [….] what with all the recent concerns about hacking and personal details being lost we’re portraying the future that many people fear here in the game.

While these games respond to the general public’s awareness of hacking, they also specifically restore to the Gothic its subversive outcasts and anarchists, its playful dread and nihilism. Cyberpunk gaming allows once again consumers of counter-culture to live out their fantasies as rebellious individuals in the new medium of digital entertainment, whilst simultaneously situating these individuals virtually within the types of narratives and characters of commercialism the games represent.

While the Gothic often reflects new developments in cultural attitudes, tastes and social practices, it seems that it is also supported by their subsequent homogenisations. Just as the Gothic has been adapted countless times into plays and films, and its motifs and images into Pop-Goth merchandise, so too is the unique essence of Steampunk and Cyberpunk disseminated into global pop-culture, from fashion accessories such as badges and hat pins to posters and t-shirts, all sold alongside other sub-cultural effects under one roof. It seems that just as something Gothic is resurrected, it is shortly thereafter sent back to the grave. Is the Gothic, then, both product and process, in which aesthetic pleasures which reflect attitudes, practices and tastes are disassembled, drained of their unique substance, and resurrected as pale imitations of their former selves?

Works Cited

Botting, Fred.  Gothic: The New Critical Idiom.  London: Routlage, 2006.

Hewit, Jema “Emilly Ladybird”.  Steampunk Emporium.  Cincinnati: North Light Books, 2011.

Jenkins, David.  “Syndicate co-op hands-on and interview – team bonding.”  Metro.  Associated Newspapers Limited.  28th October 2011.  Web.  20th November 2011.

Spooner, Catherine.  Contemporary Gothic.  London: Reaktion, 2006.

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