Graceless: a journal of the radical gothic

Fanzine of the week #4

Available in print – and online as a free/donation pdf. (and from Amazon)

“We demand that the goth scene be more than a black-clad reflection of mainstream society”

I’ve written about goth on here before and it’s something that still appeals to me in many ways, although you’re unlikely to catch me wearing eyeliner or crimping my hair. Anarchism has also had an influence on my political (and other) thought and activity, although again I wouldn’t call myself an anarchist these days for a whole host of reasons which are probably best left for another time.

Graceless‘ radical/decadent/anarcho approach to goth interests me, recalling the early eigthies London of Alistair Livingstone’s “Subway surfing anarcho goths” and many of the reminiscences over at Kill Your Pet Puppy. I have a fascination with subcultures that are about more than fashion, and the attempt here to either highlight an ideological undercurrent in goth (or to inject one into it?) is intriguing. Certainly most of the books/mags etc on goth that I’ve ever seen have been largely about flogging music or clothes  (or expaning the marketplace within in which that takes place by reinforcing the goth identity?).

Graceless is well written and looks great. At over a hundred pages this debut issue is going to take some time to digest properly. There are some interesting interviews with people like Jarboe and Attrition (as well as acts which were new to me) and some cool features as well. I haven’t read it all yet, and I focus below on articles that made me think, which of course will be the ones that I have disagreements with.

Decadent Politics covers the poetic, visionary and utopian I guess. It posits decadence as being anti-fascist, which is interesting (and certainly believable if you look at Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism on sexual repression etc):

“Today there are those that say fascism is simply fashion, that to strut around in a SS uniform and festoon our lace with the Nazi death-head skulls is meaningless and should cause no concern. Saying this is to ignore what they represent on a symbolic level. We would never wear a McDonald’s golden arches to a goth club because it represents mass conformity. So does the iron cross. The zombies wear business suits, and they are not satiated only with the brains of the living; they also hunger for our hearts and souls.”

A radical’s guide to spooky music is an interesting overview of the bands and artists who the author feels represent “radical goth”, including Coil, KMFDM, Bauhaus and Joy Division. A lot of the lyrics and politics quoted aren’t about things I am especially interested in: animal rights, non-specific rebellion, anti-consumerism, anti-americanism. But it’s probably a bit much to expect the goth subculture (or one aspect of it) to develop identical politics to my own. As manifestos go this is an interesting drawing together of various tendencies in goth that certainly demonstrate that it is far from apolitical.

I am quite wary of political activists who over-identify with subcultures these days. I think “identity politics” is a trap which divides people and can lead to situations where cultural signifiers like music (or even ethnicity and sexuality) are seen as more important than people’s relationships with each other and their experience of capitalism where they work or live.

However, the flipside of this is that a purely political approach in which you only talk to people about, say, the conditions on their housing estate, or cutbacks at their workplace can come across as a bit robotic. So there’s a balance to be struck between the (sub)cultural and the political, which is increasingly difficult to achieve as culture fragments into more and more niches. As Steve Goodman and Kodwo Eshun pointed out, the “long tail” posits a society where there is less and less communal experience and more and more instant individualised consumer gratification.

Subcultures have a role to play in changing the status quo, and goth’s outright promotion of androgyny and gender equality is all for the good (although hardly universal, as the article here about “goth misogyny”  and “pick up culture” at some goth nights makes clear). I guess what is missing is a fully developed critique of how capitalism operates as a set of relationships, of the system rather than some of its manifestations (war, hunger, etc). But it’s not like any other music/fashion based subcultures have that.

There’s a fair bit in Graceless about Goths and their place in the anarchist scene. As someone who has had gothic tendencies and has some sympathy with parts of anarchism this all seems a bit too confining. I find the worlds of info-shops, squats and goth clubs quite alienating these days, despite being interested in them as social phenomena (and in the ideas which circulate in them). I suppose hanging around in places like that helped me develop my ideas and a sense of who I am, but I think people are kidding themselves if they reckon that havens for alternative fashion are going to play a useful role in mass struggles. Indeed there are a few passages in Graceless which abhor mass culture, the mainstream and suit-wearing “zombies” (see quote above). Contributors have mixed feelings about Marilyn Manson, but Lady Gaga (arguably the most visible current example of the gothic aesthetic, albeit not sonically) is conspicuous by her absence.

I suppose this is really getting into similar territory to two articles about anarchopunk I’ve republished on my website:

That said, I can of course completely understand why retreating into / immersing yourself in subcultures is a good and necessary thing for some people. If you’re one of a handful of freaks in the bible belt then there must be an incredible feeling of solidarity and self-empowerment if you start your own DIY Goth Night (as one contributor did, smack bang in KKK country). The murder of Sophie Lancaster is chilling reminder of the sort of intolerance people who dress a bit different can face out there in small town England in the early 21st Century.

Your Goth Is Dead: The Rise And Fall of Goth In America is a nice overview of the developments of the subculture in the nineties, including goths being seduced by rave and ironic self-mockery which is I suppose the antithesis of the playful po-faced strategies of the eighties.

Some of the most rewarding pieces in this issue stretch the definition of Goth backwards in time – Dressed To Kill: Illegal Dandyism looks at youth cults like the Zazou and Edelweiss Pirates, whose fashion sense shocked the totalitarian regimes they lived under, and provided them with enough reason to take on fascists physically as well as culturally. There are also some intriguing investigations into the Darker Side of Victorian Children’s Tales and German expressionist cinema during the rise of Nazism.

As I said above, I’ve mainly concentrated here on my differences with Graceless. That strikes me as being more interesting thing to write about than saying “it’s great!”, which it most certainly is. It’s made me ruminate on a lot of good stuff and I’m very happy that they’ll be including a contribution from me in the second issue. If you’re interested then you’re probably already reading the magazine itself instead of ploughing though my waffle here.

3 Comments

  1. MARTIN says:

    lol @ ‘zombies in business suits’. Yeah, sorry, some offices made us wear them, and we didn’t have a welter of back-up options to pay the rent…(in any case, a basic suit’s probably cheaper than all the goth accessories…) though personally, the idea of wearing Maccy D arches to a goth night seems really appealing somehow…what was that Sham 69 song on the second LP where Chairman Jimmy’s running to work in a suit, and he gets in a fight with a bootboy who calls him a poof?

  2. JOHN says:

    LOL – “Who Gives A Damn”?

    Running for the bus in me crisp blue suit, someone yells out “poof” so I put in the boot, I don’t want to wear it’s my boss who make me (something)

    Or something ;-)

  3. MARTIN says:

    LOL, yeah that’s the one.

    Incidentally, one of the real scenesters at Slimelight circa ’95 (Elionara, I think?) worked in a travel agents in Euston :)