Reading Goths the Birmingham Way


 Part 1: The Goth Subculture in Profile

 Part 2: Analysis From the Birmingham School



Authorís Note:

This piece was initially completed as part of an MA course in Cultural Studies Theory and Method. It is intended as a serious and formal theoretical analysis of the Goth subculture from theory provided by the "Birmingham School" of cultural studies. Itís original question was "To what extent is the 'Birmingham School' of thought useful for understanding the Goth Subculture?" It is by no means a definitive guide to the Goth subculture and only describes the subculture in its basics. Iím working on the assumption that readers will already be largely familiar with the Goth scene and therefore feel it unnecessary and self-indulgent to give more than a cursory description of the Goth styles.



The easiest way to begin to understand the Goth subculture, from the point of cultural studies theory and method, is to examine its distinctive features - what distinguishes the Goth subculture from other subcultures, its parent culture and "mainstream" culture. It is then useful to draw upon existing theory to find a working definition of subcultures, parent cultures, and mass culture. This will help to clarify further analysis of the Goth subculture and will, for this piece of work, relate back to theory original to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (the CCCS or "Birmingham School") as well as other theoretical perspectives.

In "Resistance Through Rituals", John Clarke et al firstly describe culture in terms of traditions, types and structures of social relations and the way in which these are embodied in institutions and in material objects and shapes. Their definition also includes a reference to 'maps of meaning' which the members of particular cultures use to make sense of their environment and the world around them. They base their definition, not only in terms of types of beliefs and customs, but make a point of including the ways in which these relations express themselves in concrete, real ways, as institutions and material objects of value:

"The 'culture' of a group or class is the peculiar and distinctive 'way of life' of the group or class, the meanings values and ideas embodied in institutions, in social relations, in systems of beliefs, in mores and customs, in the uses of objects and material life. Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organisation of life expresses itself. A culture includes 'maps of meaning' which makes things intelligible to its members. These 'maps of meaning' are not simply carried around in the head: they are objectivated in the patterns of social organisation and relationship through which the individual becomes a 'social individual'. Culture is the way the social relations of a group are structured and shaped: but it is also the way those shapes are experienced, understood and interpreted." (Clarke et al, 1976:10-11)

Having defined culture in these terms, Clarke et al then go on to examine the meaning and implications of the term "dominant culture". Taking a critical realist epistemology, examining the subject of analysis in terms of power relationships and structures, in the analysis of culture leads to the conclusion that society does not simply exhibit one specific culture. Society is composed of a number of cultures, which exhibit the same tendency as groups and classes towards an unequal status, with different power relationships and struggles with and between each other. It is the culture which holds the greatest power over the others which will be in dominance. Thus, for example, the overall culture of a nation, county or city, will not be a sum total of all of the cultures encapsulated within that nation, county or city, but will be that of the dominant culture in place at that specific moment in history. It will be the culture of the dominant social class which will become the dominant culture in society as it is the dominant social class which has control over the production of cultural material - the dominant social class has the facility to choose the agenda of theoretical research. It will reward research and theory which supports its own needs and not those which are contrary to its own interests. The dominant social class therefore becomes the dominant cultural power, directing and reforming culture to a shape which suits its needs:

"The dominant culture represents itself as the culture. It tries to define and contain all other cultures within its inclusive range. Its view of the world, unless challenged, will stand as the most natural, all-embracing, universal culture."

(Clarke et al, 1976:12)

The definition of subculture relies on the definition of its parent culture. It is safe to assume that the most basic structures in society are classes. From the definition of cultures, it follows that the most basic cultural structures will be class-based cultures. The definition of the subculture leads to the definition of the parent culture - subcultures being structures in existence within a specific class-based culture. The parent culture is then defined as that class-based structure which contains the sub-culture. The sub-culture, however, exhibits distinctly different qualities to that of its parent culture while at the same time retaining some of the qualities of the parent culture. The Birmingham School describes subcultures by observing that:

"They must be focused around certain activities, values, certain uses of material artefacts, territorial spaces etc. which significantly differentiate them from the wider culture. But since they are sub-sets, there must also be significant things which bind and articulate them with the 'parent' culture." (Clarke et al, 1976:14)

An easy example of the parent culture - sub-culture relationship would be that of the hippies. The hippies are a distinct enough sub-culture, with their own values, social activities and use of space and material objects yet they also hold some of the values of the middle classes. The parent culture is the middle class culture and the subculture is that of the hippies.

Having explored the different definitions and implications of those definitions for their use in analysis, it is necessary to turn the focus to describing the culture of the Goths. Goths fit into the Birmingham School's definition of subculture very well. It does not take very close observation to see that members of the Goth community have their own unique values, traditions, uses of material objects or artefacts, territory or physical location and space and focal concerns, as well as having their own patterns of media consumption.


Part 1: The Goth Subculture In Profile

The Goth subculture first emerged in Britain in the late 1970s/early 1980s. It rose as a phoenix from the dying flames of the late 1970s punk movement with bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Joy Division and The Cure to name but a few. Musicians such as these were undoubtedly influenced and involved in the punk subculture, both musically and in their choice of style. There was, however, a concerted effort to move in a new, more artistic and thoughtful direction, musically.

The early 1980s saw the development of the Goth musical style. The post-punk bands continued in their underground popularity, and were joined by a multitude of new bands. It is difficult to say which of these were the most influential in forming and developing the Goth subculture but certainly among the most influential were The Sisters of Mercy, Alien Sex Fiend, Fields of The Nephilim, Gary Numan and Depeche Mode. All of these bands, although showing quite a wide variation in musical style have had an enormous impact on Goth Culture. The audience will tend to emulate the bands or artists. By copying the artists style of dress and way of dancing, the individual seeks to gain acceptance. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the individual members of the audience are seeking to identify with the artist and by so doing, gain an imaginary acceptance and respect from the artist. In more simple terms, by imitating the artist, the members of the audience will become the artist - they will adopt the success and status of the artist.

The Goth subculture, as it exists in its present form, revolves around the nightclub as a social event. Nightclubs in different cities play host to nights specifically dedicated to Goth music in all its varied forms. Some nightclubs host weekly events, whilst others host monthly events. The nightclub offers the opportunity for Goths to gather together and provides the opportunity for a unique shared experience, through the common musical element. Special 'one-off' events are also held which take a variety of forms and can last for anything from a weekend up to a whole week. The weekend events usually combine music events, with bands making live appearances, with other related activities - the bi-annual Whitby Goth Weekend holds a market open during the daytime selling anything from rare records to clothes and jewellery. Sometimes open workshops are held in diverse subjects such as mythology, shamanism or witchcraft.

Although music is only a part of the Goth culture, it is the initial point of entry into the catacombs of the subculture. Music is the primary cultural force which brings the Goth subculture together. In contemporary society and culture, musical taste is an important part of the individual's identity, this being especially true for youth. It defines a specific area in the 'maps of meaning' and shows where one positions oneself in relation to others of the same group and members of other groups. Musical taste can easily be used to describe oneself in a way which holds many complex connotations that others will find easy to grasp and relate to. It holds the key to membership of a certain group which has, in turn, its own consumption of media and cultural products, social activities, beliefs systems, traditions and customs, associated physical spaces and locations and media-produced stereotypes and myths. So by exploring an individual's music tastes, it is possible to infer a great deal about that individual's personality and cultural identity.

Goth music, in all its varied forms, can be described in many ways. It is usually described, with a characteristic lack of imagination, as being morbidly obsessed with death, as being 'dark', 'sombre' or 'depressing' - descriptions which show a complete misunderstanding of the genre. Goth music, to those who are willing to listen to it rather than merely hear the physical sounds which are transmitted, is full of passion, majesty, beauty, mysticism and mystery, terror, violence, pain, love, imagination, eroticism, horror, euphoria, truth, evil, life, madness and the irrational. Goth music tends to be described, by those who misunderstand it, in terms of its dark side. It is rarely described in terms of its positive side but it should be described in terms of a balance between both dark and light, positive and negative. At its height, it can be so powerful that it transcends description.

One of the defining features of the Goth subculture is its sense of the theatrical, which can sometimes cross over into the realm of pretentiousness. This theatricality can be seen clearly in the Gothís styles of dress. Elements of fantasy, especially those associated with vampirism, are central to the Gothís style of dress.

The Goth style of clothing, like the music, shows a wide diversity. Goth style can be broadly divided into categories of (New) Romantic, Fetish, and Cyber- or Techno- Goth. In its early days, Goth style used to reflect its punk roots, drawing heavily on the early bondage and S&M style. The more traditional look associated with the Goth subculture is that of the romantic or new romantic. This style relies on traditional 18th and 19th century clothing for its inspiration and closely ties in to the 80ís New Romantic movement. The romantic style of clothing features Frock Coats, waistcoats and capes for the gentleman Goth and gowns, corsets, muffs and sometimes parasols for the lady. The clothing can be very elaborate or understated. It is almost always a very elegant style and perfectly encapsulates the sense of theatricality of the Goths. Romantic Goth clothing tends to be worn in traditional materials, typically featuring velvet, lace and brocade, which are usually worn in black, purple or crimson. The romantic Goth look has been adapted more recently to include much more modern materials such as PVC, rubber and modern Ďtechnoí fibres, bringing it up to date and giving a different, more fetish-orientated, emphasis to the style.

The cybergoth side of things can quite easily be seen as an adaptation of the more traditional side of Goth culture incorporating the musical styles associated with the "Industrial" scene. It is difficult to discuss the cybergoth subdivision without mentioning the industrial scene and its music. The cybergoth subculture owes more to the industrial scene musically than it does stylistically. Musically, the industrial subculture can be separated from the traditional Goth subculture. Although spatially, this separation can be impossible as many night-clubs claiming to promote Goth nights also play industrial music and are frequented by people claiming an allegiance to industrial music rather than Goth music. The same can be said for industrial nights which are frequented by members of the Goth community and which play Goth music. The Cybergoth style takes its main influences from the "Cyberpunk" genre of fiction, typified by authors such as William Gibson, Storm Constantine and Poppy Z. Brite among others. It can be difficult to describe the cybergoth sub-genre without being too vague. The easiest way to describe it may be in terms of itís difference from the more traditional Goth subculture.

Cybergoth is more heavily steeped in electronic techno dance music. It is more energetic and faster than traditional Goth music. The styles of dress are more closely related to fetish fashion than are traditional Goth styles and are much more heavily influenced by contemporary science fiction, particularly the cyborg race known as "The Borg" in Star Trek: Next Generation. It could be said to be embodied, in its natal form, in films such as Mad Max and Blade Runner, and in its more developed forms in Johnny Mnemonic, Razor Blade Smile and Blade. The Cybergoth style usually combines black with neon colours to create a highly contrasted look. Sometimes clothing has electronic circuits, LEDs and fibre optic cables interwoven or added to enhance the visual contrast against the black background. The inclusion of electronics is not always restricted to clothing and is occasionally worn on the body or hair (in the case of hair, it is usually fibre optic cables which are intertwined with the bodyís natural hair and then linked up to some sort of bulb or LED).

Goth dress style, like its music, also shows some of its roots in punk dress style. While the punk style was derived from a pastiche of cultural styles messily torn up and thrown together with safety-pins, the Goth-punk style was and is more consistent, featuring the bondage elements of punk dress style but without the invading influences of other styles. The Goth-punk style relies heavily on fetish style - bondage outfits with straps, buckles and zips, thigh-high stiletto boots and a predominance for leather, pvc, rubber.This style has specifically targeted the highly sexualised element of punk. Perhaps Foucault's theories of sexuality can be of help in understanding the reason behind this. In his terms, heterosexuality is constructed to ensure that the capitalist production structures are constantly supplied with a work force. The capitalist production systems and structures require a constant supply of workers, much in the same way as a beehive requires worker bees to sustain itself. Sexual behaviours which guarantee the regeneration of this workforce are normalised and those which threaten its supply or do not adhere to its strict definitions are pathologised, demonised and treated as deviant behaviours. The use of bondage and fetish styles of clothing in such an open, sexualised context clearly and explicitly shows a resistance to this normalised, dictated sexuality. This resistance is usually expressed through an explicit opposition or through satiric attacks on normalised heterosexual stereotypes and cliches.


The Gothic style is complemented by a series of rituals which can roughly by grouped into the category of body rituals. These body rituals can be separated into three levels - temporary, semi-permanent and permanent. On a temporary or superficial level, make-up is used to create a distinct look of the graveyard. White foundation is used to wipe any trace of colour from the face, giving the Goth the appearance of death, of a creature returning from the grave. The eyes are usually accentuated with the use (or overuse) of black eyeliner and dark eyeshadow, intensifying the sunken, deathly look. Black or very dark crimson red lipstick is used, again to heighten the impact of the deathly pallor. A small minority of the Goth community also opt for the 'Vampire' look. This is achieved with artificial fangs, individually moulded to fit over the wearer's incisors. On occasion this is combined with coloured contact lenses (especially red) to mask the natural colour of the wearer's eyes, giving a look which can only be described as demonic.

Examination of body rituals on a semi-permanent level brings us to the description of hair styles and the use which is made of body piercing. Hair styles take some influence from those of the punks, the mohican being popular. The Goth mohican, however, is usually wider than its punk counterpart. Unnaturally coloured hair is common to both subcultures, the Goths preferring either black or stark blonde. The cyber-Goths show a marked tendency towards unnaturally coloured hair extensions, in blue, white, red or black plaits or dreadlocks. The conventional Goths tend to prefer long black back-combed or crimped hair. There seems to be no correlation between hair styles and gender in the Goth world - hair styles are accepted as not being restricted to either sex or gender.

Body piercing, particularly facial piercing, is widely visible in the Goth subculture and completes the semi-permanent level of body rituals (semi-permanent as they can be removed almost without any trace of them ever having been in place). Body piercing has been an important part of ritual religions since time immemorial. It was used to signify the transition from adolescence into adulthood across a wide selection of ancient cultures and societies, from the native Americans to the Druids of pre-Christian Britain. It was even worn by a member of the British Royal family (Prince Albert, whose name is now a euphemism for a piercing of a part of the male genitalia!). In contemporary society, ear piercing, for the most part, has become an accepted norm, for men as well as for women. Nose piercing has become an accepted norm amongst youth cultures, again for both men and women, but still remains something of a taboo amongst older generations. In the United States, nose piercing is still frowned upon in all but the largest and most cosmopolitan cities. Even in those cities, acceptance is only acknowledged amongst a minority group (an example of which would be Greenwich Village, a bohemian quarter in New York).

Piercings throughout the rest of the body (the nipples, the navel, and the genitalia) are much less common, even though they have become more popular amongst members of certain youth groups or subcultures. It is far more common for a member of the Goth community to have one or more of the more extreme piercings. There seems to be a hierarchy of piercings at play in the Goth community - the more extreme the piercing, the higher up the hierarchy the individual will be. Common or popular piercings, such as one ear or nose piercings, demonstrate the lower levels of the hierarchy. The next level is indicated by piercing the same body areas but to a higher degree - multiple piercings in the ears and nose and perhaps piercings in less conventional body areas - the eyebrow, the navel or the nipple. One level above this is indicated by multiple piercings of the navel and nipples and the genitalia. The highest 'guru' status is indicated by body modification which is only available through surgery (a member of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow has had coral 'horns' surgically implanted under his scalp. Owing to the organic nature of the implants, the blood vessels will eventually grow through the implants, making them inseparable from the rest of the body without major surgery).

The permanent level of body rituals brings us to tattooing. Like body piercings, tattoos have their origins in ancient societies and cultures, dating back at least two or three thousand years. Tattooing as an artform has graced societies throughout the globe, From the Maori to the Inuit and from the African to the Samoan. Tattooing has been used to signify many diverse meanings. They have been used in warrior societies to signify a victory, a defeat or an extraordinary act of heroism. They have been used to express joy or sorrow. They have been used in ritual ceremonies and in traditional religious ceremonies. They have been used to communicate any number of meanings, and to show an affiliation to or membership of some sort of secret group. The best known type of tattoo is one that is used to signify the transition from one phase or cycle of life to another - as an initiation rite or rite of passage.

Tattooing in the Goth subculture is a difficult issue to understand. Tattooing is most easily understood from the perspective of the individual, as opposed to a group- or community- based perspective. On a general level, the tattoo signifies personal meaning the its wearer. It is used to confirm the beliefs or an aspect of the personality of the individual, either on a specific level or a general level. The most common style of tattoo visible in the Goth subculture is influenced by Celtic knotwork patterns. These tattoos usually take the form of a Celtic armband - a repeating design around the top of the arm. Knotwork was used in Celtic ritual religion to signify the never - ending cycle of life. Perhaps the original meaning of the knot is secondary to the use of traditional ritual religious iconography. It is a way of communicating denial of oppressive organised religions by association with an ancient 'primitive' spiritual religion.

Religion and religious beliefs play a large part in the formation or identification of the Gothic identity. Religious belief throughout the Goth subculture tends to show a leaning towards ancient ritual and pagan religions. Most of these religions do stem from ancient pre-Christian Europe, particularly from Britain and the Celts. Gothic religious beliefs align themselves with the traditions of Witchcraft, Shamanism, Druidism, worship of the Mother Goddess, the Cult of the Dead and eco-magic. Spiritual religions of the middle and far East also tend to influence the spiritual beliefs with Ancient Egyptian rituals playing a major influencing role. The identification with various religions is usually visible and can be seen in the type of jewellery worn - pentagrams, crosses and Ankhs being amongst the more popular.

The fascination with pagan ritual magic and religion stems from the sense of freedom to the individual spirit which these religions hold as a fundamental philosophic principle. The religions of the ancient offer an alternative to the constricting and oppressive dominant Christian religions. They offer freedom from enforced belief and moral restriction. They offer an alternative to the outdated, empty rituals of the Church. With Pagan religions, it is possible for the follower to find a meaningful and impassioned way of life or spiritual path which is not just lacking in Christianity, in all its forms, but which is actively demonised, repressed and eliminated. It offers a power to the individual but also confers a responsibility to the individual. It encourages the individual to follow their own path and not to aimlessly accept those doctrines which are imposed and which should be followed mindlessly like sheep, without questioning.

Following on from and related to the Victorian element of Goth culture is the fascination with gothic literature, in particular the gothic novel, which was born in the romantic movement in the latter half of the 18th century. Gothic fiction brought to focus all the emotional and non-rational aspects of the human condition. It questioned society's conventional wisdom, as defined by the period of enlightenment. The scientific importance of rationality, logic and reason were the primary targets which gothic literature sought to bring to justice. Gothic authors used macabre images, horrific monstrosities and supernatural forces as incarnations of abstract principles to question the importance and validity of science's fanatic obsession with rational orderly laws and their implications.

Certain gothic novels have been appropriated by the Goth subculture as artefacts of great cultural value. Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897) and Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' (1818) being two prime examples. Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus' sees Victor Frankenstein relating the story of how he created a creature from human parts and then gave it life, in so doing creating a murderous monster. The novel voices the concern that modern science will eventually lead us to disaster and warns against modern science's urge to 'play God' - a warning evident in the subtitle. The circumstances under which the novel Frankenstein were written (Mary Shelley was staying at the Villa Diodati, outside Geneva, with Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Percy Shelly, when Lord Byron suggested that they each write and tell a ghost story for mutual entertainment) importantly link into the appearance of the vampire in classical romantic literature. The first appearance of the vampire in literature is in John Polidori's 'The Vampyre' - published in 1819 in the April issue of 'New Monthly Magazine'. 'The Vampyre' was a re-working of a tale told by Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati. The appearance of 'The Vampyre' inspired an eruption of vampire stories, eventually culminating in the publication of 'Dracula'.

It is with 'Dracula' that we see the emergence of the vampire as it is portrayed in modern popular culture. The vampire image has been adopted by part of the Goth subculture as a cultural icon. The vampire has a very strong image, taking the life of others to sustain itself and in so doing living immortally. The vampire embodies both life and death - it is a metaphor for part of society. Those who are in power can only maintain themselves by living off the life force of others. By adopting the vampire as a cultural icon, the Goth subculture is metaphorically, if not actually, drawing power from others, with self-sustenance being the ultimate goal.


Part 2: Analysis From the 'Birmingham School'

As described in part 1, the Goth subculture shows a focus on its own specific activities; it shows its distinct beliefs; uses of material objects and territorial spaces; its traditions, customs and rituals. The Goth subculture can be said to be distinct enough from its 'parent' culture and from mainstream culture and therefore fulfils part of the criteria set out by Clarke et al in the definition of subcultures. It is important to examine how the Goth subculture relates to its 'parent' culture. Members of the Goth subculture tend to have middle class backgrounds (this is not always the case but middle class backgrounds do predominate in the Goth subculture). Thus the parent culture, as defined by Clarke et al, will be the middle class. So how does the Goth subculture relate to the middle class - what values do the middle class hold that are common to the Goth subculture?

The brief answer is that both the Goth subculture and the middle class show a tendency to uphold liberal democratic political and moral values. Middle class culture is one that values equality of opportunity, property ownership and material wealth and the responsibility of the individual towards fellow men and women and society in general. The most concise description of liberal democratic ideology comes from the National Liberal Federation:

"[Liberalism's] aim is to create a nation, not of humble though kindly treated workers dependent upon a small rich class who alone can enjoy the full benefits of a civilised life; and not of proletarians regimented, controlled and provided with standardised comforts by a group of dictators or bureaucrats acting in the name of the state; but a nation of free responsible, law-abiding and self-reliant men and women ... enjoying a real equality of opportunity to make the most and best of their powers for their own advantage and that of the community, and to choose the way of life for which they are best fitted; having a real share of responsibility for regulating the management of their common affairs and the conditions of their own life and work; and secure of sufficient leisure to live a full life and to enjoy the delights of Nature, letters and the arts."

(National Liberal Federation, 1936:221-2)

It is easy to see that the Goth subculture makes an attempt to emancipate its members from religious and gender based constraints and makes a small scale construction (through its use of space and territory) of a more open, tolerant and less authoritarian society, rather than one that is based upon outdated illegitimate authority. The spiritual belief systems favoured by the Goth subculture promote an individual responsibility to nature, society and fellow men and women and a freedom to pursue one's desires, both material and spiritual. A major assumption of the liberal political ideology is that individuals in society are capable of conducting their own affairs with minimal intrusion from Government or the State and that this ability is an innate one given at birth. It is plain to see that the spiritual philosophies favoured by members of the Goth subculture resonate with this assumption. It is also plain to see the commonality between the Goth subculture and middle class culture.

The issues surrounding the subculture and how it relates to the parent culture are discussed by Clarke et al, and it is theorised that the subculture is presented with the same problematic as the parent culture. The same issues arise from the same sets of circumstances and life experiences in both the parent culture and the subculture. The way in which the solutions to these problematics and life experiences are expressed will differ between the subculture and the parent culture but the same essential problems will remain the same. The way in which the 'solutions' are expressed will differ due to the institutions through which the problematic is expressed - the family, the state, or education springing immediately to mind. To understand the issues dealt with by the Goth subculture, the issues dealt with by the parent culture can be examined.

The problematic encountered by the middle class in post - second world war Britain is a problematic of capitalism. The middle class bourgeoisie was, up until the point that capitalism began to enter its post-war expansion and technological development, the master of its own culture. Whereas other classes were referred to as autonomous, the middle class culture was conspicuous by its absence of referral. In the words of Juliet Mitchel:

"We don't think of 'middle class culture' as something separate - it simply is the overall culture, within which are inserted these isolable other cultures. However, this cultural hegemony by bourgeois thought is not on an absolute par with the domination within the economy by the capitalist class." (Cited in Clarke et al, 1976:62.)

The bourgeois middle classes have not been immune to the effect of the expansion of the capital economy since the second world war. Rather than being in control of economic production and economic affairs in the capitalist system, the bourgeois middle classes have become enslaved to an extent by the capitalist system.

The middle classes still hold a higher status in society than the working classes, but they no longer seem to hold ultimate power over economic production - emphasis on the middle class has shifted from them being the oppressors of the working class to them being an intermediary level in the division of capitalist labour. The middle class is no longer unified but is divided in two - the upper middle class which occupies higher levels of industrial structures and the lower middle class, which occupies intermediate levels in the industrial production structures. Clarke et al refer to a range of new professions appearing in modern society to testify to the way in which the middle classes have been effected:

"We have seen the growth of the intermediate white-collar and lower managerial strata, the rise of new professions alongside the old, a growth in the administrative and 'welfare-state' non-commercial middle classes, and new strata connected with the revolutions in communications, management and marketing." (Clarke et al, 1976:63)

They believe that the intricate structure of middle class culture - its emotional restraint and the 'protestant' work ethic - formed a protective husk or "complex integument around the developing mode of production." It is argued that with the post-war explosion of industrial production, this husk was worn away, leaving gaps in the cultural "super-structure" which mediated between modes of production and intellectual structures, having an unsettling effect upon the middle class culture.

The new cultural values which were emerging in the post-war era proved to be something of a crisis for the middle classes to deal with - the middle class had always dictated how things were done to the lower class and always adhered to these ways of life themselves. Suddenly the rules of society had changed - women were no longer content to be tied to the household and on personal economic matters, the principle of saving had been replaced by the principle of consuming. The cornerstones of traditional middle class values were beginning to be eroded. The middle class counter-cultures opened up to the new ways of life - instead of denying the need for adaptation in the way that the middle class parent culture did, the counter cultures embraced the opportunity to adapt and bring forth new modes of being and cultural values and traditions. The dominant middle classes demonised the counter-cultures, rather than accepting that the crisis had come from within their own class.

The separation of the middle class into two levels has led to the lower of the two experiencing life in a different way to that of the upper middle class. The lower middle class, through hard work and education has been allowed to progress only so far. The Upper middle class still, for the most part, holds power over the lower and dominates over it. It is the site of a cultural hegemony. The concept of Hegemony is one that is central to the continuing domination of the subordinate classes by the ruling class. Drawing from the works of Gramsci, Clarke et al emphasise the role that hegemony plays. Rather than being an actively forceful dictation, hegemony refers to the way in which the ruling class gains and retains power over the subordinate class by some level of consent. Hegemony uses structures and institutions to suppress the subordinate class and by weakening or incorporating alternative structures and institutions used in defence or resistance by that subordinate class. Thus it is a continuous process of negotiation and re-negotiation. In relation to the lower and upper middle classes, the upper keeps the lower in check by providing them with adequate enough scales of pay to sustain a standard of living that is well above the average. The structures and hierarchies of the middle management levels of industry are such that an institutionalised resistance is impossible without the threat of losing employment. Life then becomes a meaningless cycle of consumption and production in which the only value is that of material wealth.

The Goth subculture's resistance to the dominance of the capitalist cultural force can be paralleled to the reaction of the romantic movement in the late 18th century and early 19th century to the European Enlightenment movement. The Romantics argued that enlightenment philosophy and empirical science, through its overbearing spirit of rationalism repressed the spirit of the human being. The ongoing modernisation of society steadily eroded the basis of human experience and its relation to nature. For the romantics, nature was the stage for diverse and impassioned human drama, not an abstract phenomena to be observed, documented and dissected. Nature was to be lived. For the romantics, nature was a complete organism. For the enlightenment scientists, nature was an atomistic machine.

The romantic movement criticised the industrialisation of production, not in economic terms, as did Marx, but on spiritual and emotional terms. It was not just the methods that were employed by enlightenment thought but rather their whole basis of knowledge and the assumptions on which knowledge and truth can be understood. The enlightenment-scientific standpoint based knowledge on an empirical observation of phenomena. The only way of gaining knowledge of that which is real is by observation - interpretations are not valid, as they involve the interaction of the human mind which is fallible. To this, the romantics countered that there is no way of observing natural phenomena without making interpretations and to assume so is to delude oneself and others. For the romantics, imagination and inspiration were the only true way of living with and experiencing nature.

When discussing the Goth subculture, it can be said that the openness of spirit which its members embody is a way of living with nature and experiencing nature. They show the same attitudes and beliefs as the romantics - the fascination with the darker side of the human condition - but that the way in which these are experienced and embodied is more fantastic. According to Clarke et al, the way in which a subculture expresses the disjuncture between its members and dominant culture is always lived through. In particular reference to subordinate cultures, the Birmingham school states that the subordinate culture lives its subordination. The expression of disaffiliation with the dominant culture is one that is lived.

The Goth subculture, through its use of different rituals, styles and appropriation of cultural artefacts such as the gothic novel, is making a symbolic expression of disaffiliation with the dominant culture. It is not making a direct, overtly political attack on the dominant culture but rather it is entering into a symbolic relationship with it. Because the relationship is carried out on a symbolic, 'imaginary' level, the possibility of creating any sort of solution on any level other than the symbolic is not possible. Concrete solutions to the problem of how the middle class should deal with modernity and the industrialisation of production brought about by capitalism are not possible from this symbolic level. The Goth subculture is trying to provide a solution to the problems of the middle class under capitalism - it is trying to provide a way for its members to understand life and to give their life some meaning. Like romanticism, it attempts to enter into a relationship with nature, to free the human condition which has been trapped by science and traditional oppressive religion.

The particular way in which the Goth subculture dresses itself and uses make-up to give the appearance of death is a physical representation of the belief that modern society has sucked the life out of humanity. By appearing in such a way the members of the Goth subculture are making a general declaration to the rest of society and in particular to the dominant culture that they are to blame for creating these monsters, these walking dead. The strong imagery of the vampire, in contrast, is used to display the resistance of the individual against the dominant culture. By living off the life force of the dominant culture, the vampire can sustain itself - by appropriating elements from the dominant culture, the Goth subculture can remain in existence and sustain itself.


Overall, the work of the Birmingham school is useful for understanding the way in which the Goth subculture operates and relates to the dominant and its parent culture. It identifies the fact that the Goth subculture expresses its disaffiliation with the dominant culture through its distinctive patterns, shapes and way of life. It does not, however account for the way in which the Goth subculture relates to the 'mainstream' cultures in operation, or even identify or define the mainstream cultures. In part, the Goth subculture defines itself by what it is not. Perhaps a 'post-Birmingham school' approach, like that taken by Sarah Thornton in her work "Club cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital" would be more use in describing the Goth subculture more fully. One thing has become clear, though, and that is that the Goth subculture is not simply a style culture. It is a complex, multi-faceted structure in opposition to the dominant forms of culture in operation in contemporary society.



Clarke, J. et al (1976) Resistance Through Rituals, London: Routledge.

Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Routledge.

MacKenzie, I, et al (1996) Political Ideologies: An Introduction (2nd edn.), London: Routledge.

Mercer, M.(1991) Gothic Rock: All you ever wanted to know... But were too gormless to ask, Birmingham: Pegasus.

Mercer, M.(1996) Hex Files: The Goth Bible, London: Batsford.

Schiffmacher, H. & Reimschneider, B. (eds.) 1000 Tattoos, London: Taschen.

Storey, J. (ed.) (1994) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Tarnas, R. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind, London: Pimlico.

Thornton, S. (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Cambridge: Polity.

Welton, J.G. (1994) The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, Detroit: Visible Ink Press.