The Strange and Unusual Society
A goth state is unthinkable in the same way that civil war and nuclear annihilation are unthinkable. But neither is it entirely out of the realm of possibility.
“Goths should get their own state,” went a tweet from an account called @ComradeCoolcat. “Like the Mormons did.” The post, which went viral in mid-August, is typical of the disaffected irony you tend to see around that website. There is that faint hint of earnest desire. Goth-seeking behavior has become prevalent on social media to the extent that the goth rock culture, once a very limited subset, is engendering more than a mere revival but has the makings of a popular demographic. But then there is the heavy lacquer of dismissive, tragic unseriousness. Goth-seeking behavior, after all, includes a crippling, self-reflexive mordancy and a lack of organizational capacity. This is to say nothing of the subcultural cousins that did possess organizational prowess stopping well ahead of aspirations of statehood.
Simply put, a goth state is unthinkable in the same way that civil war, nuclear annihilation, and a listenable Vampire Weekend album are unthinkable. But neither is it entirely out of the realm of possibility. People have formalized collectives with worse intentions; and it wouldn’t be very wise to reject the notion of a singular individual professing to be strange and unusual rising from nowhere to marshal a mass of others who are themselves strange and unusual. Faced with that possibility, it is worth considering whether a state so conceived is ideal for goth culture, or whether goth culture can maintain social longevity if a state is established. It requires a reexamination of what goth is, what goth adherents want, and how goth contrasts from the subcultures out of which it branches and with which it is sometimes conflated.
What constitutes “goth” is unquestionably iconic. Though it has off-branches like rivetheads, coldwavers, and darkwavers, and can be found in some elements of emo and nü metal, goth itself has remained static in style and emotional range. It is still signified by morose, sunlight-averse people huddled off somewhere, huffing cloves and swilling coffee, to avoid that dreaded prospect of contact with others. Most every comedy phenomenon, from Saturday Night Live to South Park to Tim and Eric to Portlandia to Letterkenny, has commented on it, and many times over. If it is not being confused with punk or generally being absorbed into “post-punk,” it is being trivialized as something closer to an ornate, dismal clown show. This is a natural outcome of a collective nature that is willing to embrace what common mores disdain, and which sometimes go very well together: like camp and being openly, unflinchingly miserable. It proved sufficiently embarrassing to the generality of mankind that mankind was too ready to leave it in pop culture’s trash heap as silly and adolescent. So its reemergence, where it is noticed, will be treated with some alarm. People, it appears, are finding yet another reverse-trajectory to teenagerhood. Though that is to misunderstand the core principles that sustain goth. A reverse course to one person may be an ascendance to another.
In order to make sense of the look and conduct of a given subculture, it helps to look backwards to the ethic its adherents have arrived at beforehand. The original punks committed themselves to confronting the many disappointments and petty effronteries of mainstream society by adopting vulgarity and impoliteness in their behavior and a crude, provocative eclecticism in their dress. Provocative to such an extent, in fact, that the swastika was adopted, at least until the emergence of the National Front made that untenable. Punk’s 1980s successor hardcore was no less provocative but it took on a more minimalistic, militant attitude. On the one hand, fashion was a luxury. The perpetually cash-strapped Black Flag, for instance, relied on Ginn family hand-me-downs and thrift shop remnants for clothing. While the climactically impaired Pacific Northwest could not do much without thermals and flannel. On the other hand, fashion was streamlined for the sake of group cohesion and purity, to assure that all the right people were on the same page.
Goth, however, is distinct from these subcultures in the apparent lack of a guiding ethic. Indeed, as with new wave, there is not even an apparent point of rebellion. It is a pure mode of expression relying on a narrowed set of the human experience – mourning, introspection, melancholy – out of indifference rather than hostility to the remaining spectrum. Goth is a cultivation of perhaps the most decadent emanations Western civilization has to offer: the subjectivity of 18th century Romanticism, the death-worship of the Celts, the sartorial melodrama of Victorian mourning traditions and Spanish Catholicism. Though the actual importance of appearance relative to simple attitude is debatable. The typical goth look can be easily bastardized in the manner that Hot Topic and lesser genres have done for years. Moreover, the music of canonical goth bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, and most of Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry tends toward the monotonous while similarly themed but less fashion-conforming bands like The Sound, Lana Del Rey, and the Pixies are more sophisticated and have broader appeal. The result is an aesthetic sensibility that, on the one hand, gives way to stereotype and parody, but on the other hand is also free of policing for purity unlike most emanations of punk. You may attribute this as much to goth’s characteristic dispassion, especially about the opinions of others, as to its inconsequential market share. In combination, goth’s politics are every bit as hard to tease out as its ethics.
The internal politics of a subculture can be assessed by the prevalence of citizenship spread throughout its participants. “Citizenship” in this case is not meant to signify an official status distinct from the subcultural participant’s nationality. Though hardcore never attempted statehood, its cross-national chain could not be possible without elements of civic engagement: the duties and mutual trust demanded by logistics. As such, hardcore and its college rock offshoots could preach the merits of individualism for the single listener while sustaining themselves by communitarian practice. Many years would pass before this embrace of contradictory stances would be substantially challenged.
Goth is the punk offshoot (next to pop punk, third-wave ska, and fourth-wave emo) that has close proximity normalcy in terms of its view of society. A goth’s politics, such as they are, are the politics of their nation. Most, I presume, would embrace progressive nostrums; though The Outline found a groundswell of Trumpist goths, even as no single reason for that support is arrived at. Yet when you separate national politics from goth culture and consider it in isolation, you won’t find much cause for citizenship. Its impulses are interior and solipsistic; closer to the imperatives of a caste than to the duties of a community.
Ask any goth to trace their cultural ancestry to the very beginning and you will get a variety of answers. Some, like Edgar Allan Poe or Stevie Nicks, are fairly common. Others break down into more niche but still acceptable examples: Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, Aleister Crowley, Montague Summers, Rosaleen Norton, the creepy woman in John Cheever’s “Torch Song,” the cast of The Craft, etc. Though not many, I suspect, would include Edmund Burke.
This is fair enough on the surface. The Irish politician could hardly be considered inwardly introspective or dispassionate. Indeed, in his day his name was synonymous with torrential hysteria. Yet nothing about Burke was ever simple. Beneath his frantic comportment and Whiggish analytical rigor, were qualities that, taken blind, few goths would deny as foundational to their tenants. Among Burke’s earliest writing was his treatise on the sublime, in which he wrote:
[A]s pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.
His political rhetoric is filled with images of ghosts breaking out of tombs, of decay at every level, and vivid portents of violence that rival John Donne’s imagery of bodily illness and the dread of eternal damnation that crowd his sermons. Gertrude Himmelfarb found fear and tragedy as present in Burke as it was in Hobbes, all he lacked was Hobbes’s notorious candor in admitting it. For Isaac Kramnick it was less about fear in Burke than a kind of sublimated ambivalence between aristocratic servitude and bourgeois striving. But it was Conor Cruise O’Brien who hit closer to the goth sensibility of Burke, at least textually. His predominant “Whig” style – analytical and “business-like” – was offset in part by his “Jacobite” style, which was more “Gothic and pathetic.” O’Brien was quick to note that this style was used “sparingly,” yet these passages that erupt into his texts tend to also be this most memorable, in particular the overripe eulogy for Marie Antoinette in the middle of his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In isolation the passage tends either to mesmerize or nauseate, depending on your tolerance threshold. O’Brien attests that readers “miss much of its force, which comes from a change in tone, a catch in the voice, an emotional break through the rational crust.” O’Brien’s Burke is at once a “counter-revolutionary propagandist” and a “subversive” in spite of himself. He was nevertheless a subversive who prized “drapery” over “nakedness” and who bordered on “the pompous” as opposed to “the cynical.” Russell Kirk’s otherwise preposterous Burke fetishism is most tolerable in his mode as a “bohemian Tory,” that “connoisseur of slums and strange corners” who “set at defiance the soft securities and sham conventionalities of twentieth-century sociability.”
It is better to say that goth, like metal, is a moral rather than an ethical subculture. Whereas metal’s morals come from the depths like a rupturing septic tank, goth’s morals are held aloft like fog hanging high among the trees. Its celebration of melancholic subjectivity and its decorous aesthetic betray a leisured respectability and careful behavioral abnegation. That it has aristocratic airs is not its most radical characteristic. Its innovation, rather, is in being an aristocracy not of money, breeding, or rigid hierarchical standing, but of temperament and perspective. It is an aristocracy that most people would prefer to let alone. Its enclaves have all the mannerisms of the Lake District but are confined to the back corners of cafeterias, diner booths, and strip mall parking lots. It is, still more, an open-invitation aristocracy; for an aristocracy rooted in temperament (which is to say, in fact) has no elitist impulse. Typically, not many RSVP. A goth polity in the general imagination is always small, always isolate. It is a short trek from the diner booth to the Jack-o-Lantern-strewn off-road cult compound. Even if that was desirable among goths themselves, it would not unfold in that manner.
The individual’s arrival into goth is not, as it is with punk, a matter of adoption in response to concrete, and adverse, stimuli. It is more a matter of drift: a flowering of one’s seemingly latent and true character, a kind of puzzle on which all the foregoing fit perfectly. It is a leaderless mentality by nature. It needs no Great Men to propel it or justify it – no Joseph Smiths, no Insane Clown Posses. No one cares what Peter Murphy has to say about anything beyond reminding us that Bela Lugosi is dead and that we will one day have the good fortune to join him. Some extra-ambitious types may come along hoping to apply a vision of goth similar to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian republicanism, a more adequate comparison than Mormonism, I should think. That didn’t work for Jefferson, let alone the rest of the South, so it’s safe to say that the goth junta would be equally out of luck. But that, too, would be to derail things before they are built.
I have spent much of this essay showing all the ways goth contrasts from punk. Yet they are similar in one crucial respect: their independence from applicable theory. Any abstract thought relative to those subcultures is retrospective to successive waves of action guided by judgment, whether collective or personal. Goth is not something that can simply be established or imposed as if it was being brought to England by Norman hordes or dictated by fiat. It emanates among a people at its own natural pace.
Social media is making goth tendencies more visible. The remaining question is whether it will also make it more numerous. The non-territorial nature of social media and goth make the conditions of the latter’s perpetuation more possible. As Burke liked to say, “circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” So it is with cultural schemes. How many more people will find in themselves the feeling of being strange and unusual? Perhaps I am wrong to say that it is a simple matter of latent self-awareness or internal logic. Some people still need to be pushed along by renewed disappointments of mainstream life in order to discover a taste not just for an aesthetic that happens to be funereal, but for a new morality that prizes careful, fixed cultivation over chaotic vagabondage that treats cultures like costumes far more than the seemingly costumed culture under review. Discontent may spread to such a scale that no patch of land could reasonably contain what emerges. What that means going forward, especially with relation to subcultures that are more democratic in character and less patient with decadence, is unclear. But the moment of victory will be clear enough once the aroma of cloves wafts through every oxygenated space. And there is dancing in the streets.
Note: This essay is adapted from the author’s Substack.