In this contribution we address the concept of critical literacies by analyzing how symbolic representations within subcultures can be understood as an engagement with specific literacy practices. For some time now, cultural studies researchers with an interest in literacy have depended upon ethnographic methods to document how members of subcultural communities mobilize literacy practices to achieve critical ends. But the extent to which ethnography actually grants researchers access to subcultural perspectives on literacy has come into question. In this article, we aim to problematize and thematize the ethnographic perspective on literacy in general – and subculture as a situated literacy practice in particular – by critically assessing contemporary art practices that focus on the representation of subcultural identities. We therefore specifically look at artwork by Nikki S. Lee, who focuses on subcultures in her work through ‘going native performances’.
Contemporary Art, Ethnographic Turn, Nikki S. Lee, Literacy, Subculture
In his seminal work Subculture: The Meaning of Style Dick Hebdidge (1979) discusses elaborately the meaning of symbols such as the safety-pin in punk subculture that emerged within the British working-class youth of the 1970s. Strongly embedded in the Birmingham school of cultural studies and inspired by the work of Stuart Hall (Hall et al., 1976), Hebdidge studied how, on the one hand, the use of symbols within subcultures was recuperated by the conversion of subcultural signs such as dress and music into mass-produced objects and how, on the other, subcultural behavior was labeled as ‘devi- ant’ behavior. Introducing an ethnographic perspective for studying youth culture, Hebdidge described the style of punks as a form of bricolage (the appropriation of the safety-pin as a fashion statement), as a form of homology (the use of the safety-pin as a recognizable icon) and as a signifying practice (the use of the safety-pin as a display of ‘otherness’). Hebdidge’s reading of punk subculture was one of the first examples of a cultural studies engagement with youth cultures and his reading, of course, needs to be confronted with uses of similar symbols in different contexts. In Figure 1 we see a young girl who attached an oversized safety-pin to a kawaii (cute) figurine. Such subcultural behavior is common at the Harajuku Bridge (also called Jingu Bashi) in Tokyo, where young girls flock in weekends to expose their fashion styles, often influenced by manga and anime. It is remarkable that an ordinary object such as a safety-pin can grow into an icon within punk subculture and – much later – is still used across several cultural spaces creating ‘meaningful’ practices for youngsters around the globe.
In this contribution we want to address the concept of critical literacies by analyzing how symbolic representations within subcultures can be understood as an engagement with specific literacy practices. For some time now, cultural studies researchers with an interest in literacy have depended upon ethnographic methods to document how mem- bers of subcultural communities mobilize literacy practices to achieve critical ends (Cintron, 1998; Mahiri, 1998; Moje, 2000). But the extent to which ethnography actually grants researchers access to subcultural perspectives on literacy has come into question. At the same time, literacy studies researchers with an interest in culture have increas- ingly turned to (popular) literacy narratives – novels, plays and films – for critically assessing or engaging with the myths or templates about literacy that circulate in (popular) culture at large. From an ethnographic perspective, these literacy narratives are often approached as stories that document ‘rites de passage’ as individuals discover and embrace particular cultural identities and reject others.
In this article, we aim to problematize and thematize the ethnographic perspective on literacy in general, and subculture as a situated literacy practice in particular, by critically assessing contemporary art practices that focus on the representation of subcultural iden- tities. With this contribution we thus aim to further the work within literacy studies that takes the ‘detour of culture’ to critically assess the situated nature of literacy practices. As Mortensen (2012) convincingly argues, there is ‘a tendency in literacy studies – call it a disciplinary “disposition” or “attitude” – to claim ownership of the question: Does literacy have consequences, and if so, what are they?’ We concur that ‘there is nothing intrinsically bad about asserting disciplinary expertise … except when we fail to see that others outside of [these] disciplinary and institutional spaces are also engaged in discern- ing, even theorizing, what literacy is and what it does’ (Mortensen, 2012: 770). In what follows, we will explore how the ‘ethnographic turn in contemporary art’ (Foster, 1995) helps to ‘denaturalize and make strange what [we] have learned and mastered’ – which is the New London Group’s (1996: 86) programmatic statement for literacy studies – but at the same time we will underscore the necessity to focus on the power and politics of these representational practices. Specifically, we wish to flesh out the particularities of what an ethnographic perspective might entail (or not) for studying literacy in relation to art practices by focusing on the work of contemporary artist Nikki S. Lee.
Within literacy research, there has been an increasing focus on literacy as an engagement with language in specific educational contexts (Gee, 1991; Graff, 2003; Lea and Street, 1998; Willinsky, 1990). From this perspective, literacy acquisition is approached as a process of socialization situated in the context of the power structures of society and institutions. Duffy describes literacy as ‘the rhetorical struggles of competing people, cultures and institutions seeking to impose meaning and establish authority in contexts of everyday life’ (2004: 26). Such a rhetorical conception of literacy implies a focus on ‘the influence of a particular rhetoric on what [people] choose to say [and] … acknowledg[ing] the influence of rhetoric on what people refrain from saying and the expressive possibilities that are foreclosed to them’ (Duffy, 2004: 227). This critical per- spective on literacy starts from and elaborates on more recent perspectives within new literacy studies, ‘including the view of literacy development as ideological, as a product of discourse and as an expression of historical change’ (Duffy, 2003: 40).
Duffy (2007) argues that literacy develops along cultural pathways, but at the same time also along pathways that can be characterized as personal, institutional, transna- tional and historical. A critical perspective can connect these different pathways by approaching literacy development as ‘a response to the symbolic activities of institu- tions, cultures, groups, or individuals’ (Duffy, 2007: 200, quoted in Mortensen, 2012). Following this line of argument, James Gee introduces a broad perspective on literacy to indicate a whole ‘way of being’ (Gee, 2005). People have to learn to use different kinds of literacies in society and so become members of different interpretive communities. To participate in a specific interpretive community we need a particular literacy or an iden- tity toolkit. This metaphor implies we also have to pay attention to the cultural tools (signs, symbols, artifacts) by and through which we create meaning (Vygotsky in Wertsch, 1998). Gee stresses that literacy is all about ‘language and other stuff which includes body language, gestures, actions, symbols, tools, technologies, values, attitudes, beliefs and emotions’ (2005: 7).
All these tools are used to create a socially meaningful role in a socially meaningful play. Indeed, to become a member of a specific group, we have to learn ‘how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize’ (Gee, 1991: 1). Starting from such a description of literacy as a tool, Elizabeth Moje (2000) has studied the lit- eracy practices of subcultures, specifically of ‘gangsta’ adolescents. In her article ‘“To be part of the story”: the literacy practices of gansta adolescents’, she addresses the question of what these ‘unsanctioned’ literacy practices do for adolescents: ‘Are they simply acts of resistance? Or do adolescent gang members … use literacy as a way of exploring pos- sible worlds, claiming space, and making their voices heard?’ (Moje, 2000: 651). Combining insights from new literacy studies with the work from cultural studies theo- rists such as Fiske and Grossberg, Moje studies how unsanctioned literacy is used not only to resist and divide, but also to identify: ‘to make meaning about the events in their everyday lives’ (2000: 654). In Angels’ Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life and the Rhetorics of Everyday, Cintron (1998) explores – from a similar perspective – a project in rhetoric of public culture with a Mexican-American community to show how people make sense of their lives through cultural forms and how the work of anthropologists is in itself culture-making. Focusing on institutional and vernacular literacy practices, Mahiri (1998) reveals in Shooting for Excellence: African American and Youth Culture in New Century Schools the dynamics of effective learning both on the basketball court and in the classroom.
These examples show that studying literacy also implies studying how the symbols of popular culture are used to create ‘affinity spaces’ (Gee, 2005) – sites for performing literacy practices among peers – based on specific identifications and communicative patterns. Relating subcultures to ‘style’, Barry Brummett describes style as a ‘complex system of actions, objects and behaviors that announces who we are, who we want to be considered akin to. It is therefore also a system of communication with rhetorical influ- ence on others’ (2008: xi). Indeed, ‘cultural theories have problematized the notion that people simply respond to the conditions around them by resisting or accommodating experiences … people use popular cultural texts and experiences in unpredictable ways to make sense of and take power in their worlds’ (Moje, 2000: 654).