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Notes from the underground

Notes from the underground

It is one thing to borrow a title from Dostoyevsky's novel. It is another entirely to give new sense to an expression and to provide insights regarding a term that modern social science has coined to describe nearly everything that does not fall within the realm of the institutionalized community. The underground, as it stands, is "everything below". Some fear it, some embrace it, but very few attempt to describe it per se.

 

When Dostoyevsky wrote his notes about a revolting, depressed (and depressing) "paradoxalist", the underground was used to lead the readers towards things that should not be revealed, should not be seen. It was meant, as a metaphor, to designate both a place below the earth ("if you won’t deign to give me your attention, I will drop your acquaintance. I can retreat into my underground hole" p.48), but also - closer to Nietzschean metaphysical "backworlds" - places that do not exist, coveted by the mediocre as an escape from the real, "upper" world. This underground is, in a way, present in all of us : its negative, destructive aspects grazing its most expansive, creative parts.

 

 

In post-modern phraseology, the underground has taken, notably in social science, an increasingly positive connotation to designate, following the works of American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky or those of Howard Becker (who refers to deviants), subcultures existing outside the mainstream. The discourse that stems from such work features "the underground" as an essential component of modern society, whose combination with higher level forms contributes significantly to the production of novelty. Despite its proximities with semi-institutionalized communities-of-practice, the underground features groups of individuals whose practice is not yet set. We call them "collectives" to symbolize the difference between the two forms.

 

A more formalized approach to this phenomenon is found in Cohendet, Grandadam and Simon (2010) who have identified the dynamics of creative ensembles such as cities and organizations by depicting the underground as something that "brings together the creative, artistic and cultural activities taking place outside any formal organization or institution based on production, exploitation or diffusion" (2010, p.96)." The underground is defined in relation to the middle-ground (semi-institutionalized communities) and upperground (formal organizations) in a three-tier configuration of creative economies of activities. The article, extensively quoted by social science researchers since its publication in 2010, puts emphasis on the embeddedness of underground groups in particular milieus

 

 

A number of such underground collectives have been documented by authors and film-makers. Such is the case with the emergence of skateboarding in the Californian city of Dogtown depicted in Dogtown and the Z-Boys, or exemplified in director AJ Schnack's documentary film on Nirvana lead signer Kurt Cobain, About a Son. The recent release of Banksy's controvertedExit Through the GiftShop also demonstrates that the underground is not only an object of study, but a carrier of cultural deviance that led to the said controversy.

 

The three documentaries show how very small, localized groups of deviant individuals have led to the creation of massive subculture movements than have subsequently spanned the world. Graffiti, skateboarding, fixed-gear biking, grunge and punk fashion, guerilla gardening, yarnbombing; the underground is something that is localized, both geographically and cognitively, and it is precisely this feature which explains its ability to radically transform unusual concepts into significant elements for the larger masses. This reduction of the span of attention, where individuals focalize on a reduced number of artefacts, practices and places, is what permits the rapid evolution and development of novelty by the underground.

 

As with other such concepts, the underground is not necessarily something that can be circumscribed to a very narrow set of activities or individuals. In the community-of-practice literature, for instance, it does not suffice to reify something - to name it something or other - in order to actually transform it. The ability to "point at the underground" is, in essence, something that can only be done after the fact : the underground surrounds us, it is, by definition, invisible. Even in the communities and formal organizations we engage with, we are part of structural undergrounds on a daily basis - only these undergrounds do not necessarily yield the massive economic successes that we are now able to interpret has having stemmed from skateboarding or grunge music collectives twenty years ago.

 

 

Thus, when Frédéric Huet and Nathalie Lazaric (2010) write that the failure of certain individuals to consider "all the possible actions" is understandable in light of "localized learning induced by vicarious learning processes", they are constructing an abstract theoretical alternative - the possibility to consider "everything" - that has no meaning in light of the three-tier construction of a creative economy. The notion of "all" is here absurd since everything is, in a way, a local phenomenon.

 

Not to be mistaken, a thing such as "the underground" exists. Somewhere between Dostoyevsky's darker depictions and modern economists' enthusiastic views on the topic, one thing remains  : it is within the reach of each one of us to break things, shake things and move things within the undergrounds we chose to form and to interact with.  

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