Subcultures, identity, and practices of the self

This article seeks to prove that describing contemporary subcultures as forms of identity, or of resistance, as researchers have been inclined to do in the last couple of decades, is somewhat problematical. I will try to show that subcultures can be thought of as specific forms of care of the self instead. With this aim in mind, I will analyze the practices pertaining to the vandalizing of a drinking fountain in the village of Tranak, as represented in a couple of video clips.


The term “subculture” was born in the late 1920s out of the tendency to conceive of social relations that could not be recognized as a distinct culture, in terms of cultures (Folsom 1928: 101-102). Up until the 1960s, family, old age homes, and emigrant communities were described in this fashion.

Already at the time it was introduced, the term “subculture” was tied to socialization – both in people and in animals (Folsom 1928: 101). It was on this ground in the late 1950s, when social scientists started thinking of socialization as acquiring an identity, that subcultures appeared to be tied to it (Hankins 1950: 627; Sutherland 1956: 155).

Since the term “subculture” proved particularly productive in the studies of 1960s youth cultures, oftentimes differentiating themselves from, or even opposing to, the official culture, resistance gradually came to be thought of as its characteristic feature (since it varies in form and intensity, a distinction between subcultures and countercultures was introduced in this period).

These two shifts in the meaning of the term “subculture” which resulted in its intertwining with the terms identity and resistance could be illustrated by its possibly most influential definition from the 1980s:

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. (Hebdige 1979: 18)

This theoretical approach to subcultures has dominated the field up to the present day, even when under the influence of the post-subcultural studies debates it has been established that contemporary subcultures are characterized not only by resistance, but also by the lack of resistance, by their articulation in consumption patterns (Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003: 8-12).

In this article I will try to show that contemporary subcultures cannot be analyzed as forms of identity, and that not only do they seldom find articulation in resistance, but even when articulated in this way, they tend to reframe resistance as an experience, and thus deprive it of its power from the onset.


As a point of departure I will refer to a problem brought up by a study of Bulgarian subcultures conducted with the support of National Fund “Culture” and Foundation “Altera” by a research team consisting of Nia Neykova, Kalina Zahova, Galina Georgieva, and Todor Hristov.

The ambition of the study was to develop a grounded theory of Bulgarian subcultures. In the course of the study subcultures were defined as: “groups of people that are in some way represented as non-normative and/or marginal through their particular interests and practices, through what they are, what they do and where they do it” (Gelder 2005: 1).

The study was based on one of the fundamental assumptions in post-subcultural studies, stipulating that subcultures and mainstream culture are not a homogeneous whole, but dispersed networks of practices which could be intertwined with each other, constructed by the media, and born out of patterns of resistance, as well as of patterns of consumption.

In the course of the project a total of 24 interviews were conducted in September and October 2009, following the grounded theory methodology modeled after the work of Strauss and Corbin (1990). The analysis of the research findings brought us to several unexpected conclusions:

  • The respondents don’t think of subcultures as an integral whole. They make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial, weak and strong, open and closed, present-day and past subcultures.
  • As a rule, one’s own subcultural identifications are articulated as experience – both as experience gained and as something experienced.
  • The general impression is of blurred boundaries between the subcultures and permeability between most of them, along with the notion of surplus of ideas, identifications, signs, lifestyles.
  • Identification with certain subculture is usually transient; young people often migrate from one subculture to another, trying out various lifestyles, and at the same time considering their most recent identification as if it were permanent.
  • The subcultural identifications of the others are normally denounced as a fad, as a commercial product that has nothing personal about it. The latter, on the other hand, is historically defined through the respondent’s personal history of different subcultural identifications, or through the feud carried on by representatives of a given subculture against the subcultures they find unauthentic.
  • It is mostly the subcultures of the previous generations, such as rockers and heavy metal fans, which could be considered hard subcultures. The subcultures of the contemporary generation appear to be the product of the free combination of elements of various subcultures, aimed at developing one’s personal style.
  • The respondents associate many but not all subcultural identifications with external features, oftentimes not definable in full detail.
  • The primary setting for forming contemporary subcultures is the Internet.

These conclusions appeared unexpected because they made it difficult to analyze subcultures, drawing on the model of identity. This would have required making the assumption that subcultures are temporary identities which could be renounced at any time, composite identities which could be assembled in random combinations, temporary identities defined by their place in a succession of constantly changing personal proclivities. This seemed difficult because it presumed that the concept of identity had to be redefined in an unusual way, incompatible, for instance, with the way national identity is customarily discussed. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how we could renounce our national identity, combine it with other identities, and deal with it as an experience, not as a belonging. Therefore, I decided to give up the idea of interpreting subcultures based on the model of identity. I tried to interpret them as regimes of taking care of the self instead.


Following Foucault, we define “practices of the self” as those practices through which we relate to ourselves as subjects, for example, as subjects of desire or as moral subjects (Foucault 1990: 12-13, 28; 2006: 512-513, 526).1 Abstention, confession, introspection, the ancient techniques of the self, and the care of the self, can be thought of in this way.

In his later works Foucault tried to show that these practices are not exercised on subjects already constituted, these practices subjectivate us – they constitute us as subjects, and at the same time subject us to a self which in turn is formed at the intersection of different relations of discursive and disciplinary power (Foucault 1990: 29-31).


In The Use of Pleasure Foucault refers to the morality of the ancient philosophers as a “luxury” (Foucault 1990: 21). It is a luxury in the first place because it was not needed. The morality of Epicurus, for example, included rules of abstention, nutrition, self-observation, which did not need to be observed, in as much as these were not commonly accepted moral rules.

Secondly, the morality of the ancient philosophers was a luxury because it was in excess. For example, the Epicurean rule to abstain from food until one felt hungry, was in excess, because it went beyond the commonly accepted morality, it was something in addition, something in the nature of a supplement in relation to it.

Finally, the morality of the ancient philosophers was a luxury because it made difference. The dietary rules, for example, differed from the common morality and were therefore considered something uncommon, extraordinary. On that account, they differentiated the philosophers who observed them from the ordinary people. But philosophers with their rules were not just different – they excelled the morality of the ordinary people, and were therefore not only distinguishable and distinguishing, but also distinguished.2


Contemporary subcultures can be conceived of as luxury practices of the self.

Just as it was with the philosophers’ morality in the Antiquity, they are not needed, and they are constituted as an excess that could make a difference. Although their representatives often differ from the ordinary people, the difference constituted by contemporary subcultures is needed, not as much to differentiate them as a social group, but to draw a distinction within the group.

To elaborate further on this internal distinction, let us first consider how luxury is being discussed today.

It is mostly advertising that talks about luxury today. Let’s imagine an advertisement which lures us into allowing ourselves the luxury of staying at a seaside hotel. This would be a luxury not only and perhaps not as much because the hotel guarantees luxurious amenities and services. Going to the seaside is a luxury in itself. In the first place, it is not needed and to a large extent is an excess, several unusual days, breaking out of the routine of our days. Second, the seaside holiday makes a difference. A difference pertaining not as much to those who cannot afford a seaside holiday, but pertaining to us, to our ordinary days.

Advertisements usually articulate this difference from the ordinary as an experience. But how could something be a luxury because it is an experience, when even the most ordinary day we are going through is an experience?

A holiday at the seaside is a luxury because it is a different experience. It is different primarily in that it has to do with experiencing something different. We are usually busy doing what we need to do, such as, for instance, what you need to do at work, or what needs to be done at home. Holidays differ in that nothing needs to be done at that time. When on holiday, we do what we want to do and we can even do nothing, if that is what we want. For that reason, the holiday experience is not as much an experience of doing something, but of doing what we want to be doing. The fulfillment of wishes has therefore become the ground rule of any holiday nowadays, and resorts are set up not just as places where we won’t do what we don’t want to be doing, but as places offering lots of things which we might happen to want, and which would make our satisfaction more complete, or at least more profound.

Given that when on holiday we are experiencing the pleasure of doing what we want, what we are experiencing is not just doing, but wanting. Moreover, it is not some unspecified and disembodied wanting, but precisely a wanting of our own, what we ourselves want for ourselves. In this case, the main thing we experience when going on a holiday is this seeking and getting satisfaction self.

It is not hard to see that the above description of holidays can be applied to other types of luxury as well. It is applicable, for example, to luxury food, excursions, symphony concerts, cinema, eating sweets with friends on a late Sunday morning, as many retired ladies in Sofia enjoy doing, and by and large to anything different which we experience and which allows us to experience a different self.


The Enlightenment promised to emancipate man from tyranny and nature. Emancipation had to turn man into an autonomous subject, capable of making decisions for himself.

It is not hard to figure that the promise made by Enlightenment proved difficult to fulfill. We are all somebody’s subjects, and therefore do subject ourselves in some extent. Even the decisions we make for ourselves are oftentimes predetermined by needs, by others, by the media, by performance, by success.

Nonetheless, what had been promised to us by the Enlightenment was not left entirely unfulfilled. Even though we are not fully autonomous, we are still enjoying our moments of autonomy. These moments could be recognized by a single, fairly accurate criterion: when asked why I am doing what I am doing, in those moments my answer would be “because I want to” rather than “because I have to”.

If applied to our daily routine, this criterion would be met by a number of sporadic and diverse activities such as watching TV, eating sweets, going on a vacation. In spite of their diversity, all these autonomous activities could be considered a luxury because we are acting autonomously as long as we don’t act as required, and thus as long as our actions result in something in excess, something different from what is being required.

We could assume that thanks to progress these moments of autonomy became more and more common and more and more inexpensive in the Enlightenment, and that thanks to the boom in the cultural industry and the aestheticization of the goods in the second half of the 20th century they became accessible to all.

But if we are treating ourselves as autonomous subjects in these moments, and if these are moments of luxury, then we treat ourselves as autonomous subjects through luxury, and therefore constitute ourselves as such thanks to it. Provided that the principle of luxury is experience, then we are autonomous subjects to the extent that in moments of luxury we are experiencing a different self.3


Contemporary subcultures could be described as practices of the self, whose participants indulge in the luxury of experiencing a different self, thus constituting themselves as autonomous subjects.

In the rest of this article I will try to prove that one might think in this particular way even of subcultural practices which are at first sight primary examples of identities articulated as resistance against the universally accepted norms. I will use the following video clip as an illustration:

The clip could be examined as a document of a subculture – a subculture in particular, for those who would recognize the presented practice as their own cannot be defined as the Bulgarians.

Unquestionably, they define themselves as Bulgarians; nevertheless, they don’t treat Bulgarians as they treat themselves. On the contrary, the explanation to the clip presents Bulgarians as the others. It draws a distinction between the authors and the other Bulgarians deemed as an audience called upon to see what it should do, as well as what it should not do.

Since those who would identify the represented practice as their own are thought to be just a handful of people, rather than the majority of the Bulgarians, they could be thought of as a minority. But how could we single out this subcultural minority?

It seems to crystallize around practices of political resistance, articulated through symbolic violence. These practices, however, are not sufficiently stable, recognizable, predictable, in order to mark out alternative identities. They are not manifested on the body through recognizable clothing style, hairstyle, lifestyle. True, the authors of the clip were wearing masks, but it would be difficult to recognize them by their masks and hacks in the future. Moreover, it is difficult to associate such practices of symbolic violence with a given identity because of the break-up between the minority practicing them and the Bulgarians, because of their historically determined nature (what was done at the drinking fountain was conceived as a reaction to the raising of a monument to the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks at Bunovo4), and because of their reversibility (the clip in turn provoked symbolic violence committed by Turkish hackers who temporarily redirected the visitors of the web sites of two Bulgarian ministries to a site with the following text posted in Turkish and in English: “Since the state does not react to the vandalizing of the Turkish memorial fountain, two of your ministry websites have been hacked for now”). Finally, these practices of symbolic violence can hardly be distinguished from the various forms of aggression, so plentiful on the Internet.

But if we cannot identify the minority which perceives the represented practice as its own, how could we claim that it has an identity of its own (since someone has an identity when he or she can be identified).


If we give up thinking of the subcultural document discussed here in the terms of identity, it could easily be described as a practice of the self articulated as a luxury.

It could be thought of as a testimony to a practice of the self since it allows those who practice it to treat themselves as subjects who are conscious of the subordinate position of the Bulgarians and willing to fight against it; in this sense, it constitutes them as conscious, suffering and fighting subjects, as subjects of an uncommon and rare morality.

What is represented in this clip could be thought of as luxurious care of the self because it is articulated as experiencing a different self. In the first place, it is not something which you may not not do. On the contrary, it draws its meaning precisely from the fact that you may not do it, you do not do it normally, and in this sense it is not needed.5 Secondly, the above-mentioned practice is articulated as excess because it comes in addition to what is usually done, and therefore allows those who practice it to show that they have ventured, performed, and achieved something in addition, perhaps even that they are a better breed than the rest. Thirdly, the represented practice makes a difference. Naturally, it makes a difference above all to the drinking fountain. Moreover, since it differs from what is usually done, it allows those who practice it to stand out and claim they have done something distinguishing. Finally, the represented practice has the character of a luxury experience because it is articulated as experiencing an autonomous self. It articulates this autonomous self since it presents those who practice it as subjects, free from the compulsion of the universally accepted norms, and doing not what should be done, but what they want, or to be more precise, doing what they want although it should not be done.

This autonomous self is articulated as an experience because it is presented as an ecstatic subject, transgressing the boundaries of its ordinary life, in order to become a public subject, cunningly doing in front of the public eye what should not be done in public, experiencing the thrill, the anxiety, the excitement, the fear of a morally justified from its point of view violation of social norms.

This experience of a different self could be easily discerned in the manifestations of excess in the clip, exhibiting the excitement which goes along with the public voicing of the political claim that such a monument, even if seemingly unproblematic from the society’s standpoint, is unacceptable from the standpoint of the higher patriotic morality professed by this minority: the masks indicating that something which cannot be done easily and openly is being done; the politics of crossing off, applied to the flowers but not to all the names; the unintentional crossing off of its own sign: “MRF out”.6

To summarize, the clip on the vandalizing of the drinking fountain in Tranak illustrates a particular practice of the self which crystallizes around practices of political resistance, reframing them as experiences of a different, autonomous self, appearing as a luxury in comparison to everyday life. I will be tentatively referring to this practice of the self as luxurious resistance.


In conclusion, I will point out that the cases of luxurious resistance aimed at experiencing a different self are not as isolated as it might appear from the example with the vandalizing of the public fountain in Tranak. This could be also illustrated by the anti-nationalist response to the clip:

This clip replicates the practice seen in the first clip, as it in its turn commits symbolic violence against the perpetrators of symbolic violence against the monument to the perpetrators of the Bunovo bomb attack.

The symbolic violence against the authors of the former clip is committed through the soundtrack of the video clip. Particularly indicative in this regard is the selection of “Who Let The Dogs Out” by Baha Men (the phrase ‘who let the dogs out’ usually alerts to something calling for an aggressive reaction, for instance, the inopportune showing up of a poor, ugly, stupid or shy student who should be thrown out of the party by his rich, beautiful and smart fellow students).

This succession of symbolic violence is in its turn articulated as a practice of the self, which allows doing something which may as well not be done, which is more than what is usually done, and which stands out and allows those who are doing it to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Furthermore, it is structured as an experience of a different, enlightened self, filled with indignation at the ignorance of the rest, and free from the prejudices of nationalism that the majority is prone to submit to.

The popularity of luxurious resistance and its peculiar adaptability to both nationalism and anti-nationalism could be explained by its capacity to reframe any political standpoint as an experience of an autonomous, rebellious self.

Some years ago I happened to be teaching two tenth graders who defined themselves as fascists. Surely, they were not engaged in any fascist activities, except for wearing boots and camouflage clothes. Proclaiming themselves as fascists, however, was often perceived by the teachers as an act of violence and provoked counter-violence, resorting to the enforcement of school discipline in order to make them repent and convert. When I was teaching “Don Quixote” they seemed unusually agitated. I decided to examine one of them for the sake of maintaining discipline, and he explained with a fair amount of enthusiasm that in his opinion Don Quixote was the perfect fascist because no one understood his ideals and everyone took him for a madman.

We could think of “Don Quixote” in this way only if we construe fascism as an experience of an autonomous self, willing to embark on what is considered unacceptable and improper, to put itself to the risk of exclusion or even madness, so as to stand out against the compulsions permeating its everyday life.

The universality of luxurious resistance, its capacity to produce autonomous subjects out of any political stand, however, is offset by a single drawback – as with all things luxury, it can change our mood but not the way our lives work out.


1. We may assume that these practices of the self differ from the ancient practices of the self in that they are not articulated, and perhaps are not articulable as a set of rules, and in that they are not meant to transform life into “arts of existence” (Foucault 1990: 10-11). They come closer to what Foucault calls technologies of the self in the eponymous seminar (Foucault 1988: 16-7), although they could not be conceived of as reproducing the same constellation of norms, knowledge and practices, described by Foucault with reference to the genealogy of the ancient and early Christian techniques of the self (Foucault 2006: 49-50).

2. Here is why in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View Kant insisted that luxury is not morally unacceptable when done in good taste. This analysis of the notion of luxury rests above all on the works of Bataille and Bourdieu (Bataille 1997: 169, 208; 1988: 136; Bourdieu 1984: 53-55, 278-279). The analysis of luxury as per Bataille and Bourdieu is understood here as a description not of things but of uses, thus broadening its scope to encompass a number of miscellaneous and isolated cases in which someone wants something which is not needed, which comes as an extra, which makes a difference, and which is wanted for no other reason than the thing itself.

3. It could also be claimed that through our experiences we constitute ourselves as autonomous subjects and that the things which bring about such experiences are key products of today’s developed economies.

4. The bomb attack at the Bunovo railway station was committed on March 9th, 1985, by Emin Mehmed Ali, Abdullah Cakir, Saafet Recep. A bomb exploded on the train from Burgas to Sofia and took the life of seven people, including two children. The number of casualties had to be much higher according to the plan, as the bomb was set to explode in the tunnel next to Bunovo, but due to the train’s delay it exploded at the station. The perpetrators were sentenced to death and executed in 1988. The two children who died in the attack were deaf-mute and had run away from the school for children with disabilities after they had made a promise to each other to never return.

5. Of course, the text providing explanation to the clip contends that this is needed not because it is commonly accepted but because it is a necessity, because it is needed and because it is not lacking. Luxury can be needed in this sense.

6. In this respect, it needs to be pointed out that the vandalizing of the fountain is articulated as a political claim not against the Turks but against the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).


Botting, F. & S. Wilson (Eds ). 1997. The Bataille Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, 1984. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Folsom, J. 1928. Culture and Social Progress. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

Foucault, M. 2006. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982. New York: Picador.

Foucault, M. 1990. The History of Sexuality (Vol. 2). The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. 1988. Technologies of the Self: a Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: Massachusetts UP.

Gelder, K. 2005. The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge.

Hankins, F. 1950. American Sociological Review. Vol. 15.

Hebdige, D. 1979. Subculture: the Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.

Muggleton, D. 2000. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.

Muggleton, D., R. Weinzierl. 2003. The Post-Subcultures Reader. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.

Plummer, K. 1975. Sexual Stigma: an Interactionist Account. London: Routledge.

Popenoe, D. 1980. Sociology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Richardson, M. (Ed.) 1988. Georges Bataille: Essential Writings. London: Sage Publications.

Strauss, A., J. Corbin. 1990. Basics of Qualitative Research. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Sutherland, R. 1956. Introductory Sociology. Chicago, IL: Lippincott.