Überlappende Teilkulturen und Mehrfachidentitäten (1991 - Wien)
Veranstalter: Österreichische UNESCO-Kommission und Volkshochschule Brigittenau


Overlapping cultures and plural identities (1991 - Vienna)
hosted by the Austrian National Commission for Unesco and Adult Education Academy Brigittenau



Rolf Schwendter

Partial Cultures, Subcultures, Pivot Persons, Plural Identities [*]

Let me start by introducing my main taxonomies which I developed first in my book Theory of subculture (published in German [1] and in Dutch).

Like the mainstream of cultural anthropology I understand culture as the ensemble of norms, values, needs, objectivations, institutions, modes of communication in a given society.

We all know that in almost every given society groups are existing, which intend to deny the there existing ruling culture "which live", as Herbert Marcuse pointed out, "in the state of 'distinct negation' of the latter". These groups I call >subcultures<. To define them more precisely, albeit in an abstract way: subcultures are groups, which differ, concerning their norms, values, needs, objectivations, institutions and modes of communication in a significant manner from those of a given society. It will be an empirical question, in a specific investigation, whether or not the manner is significant enough, whether or not values (and so on) are shared between a specific subculture and the mainstream of a given society.

But (from my point of view, unfortunately) society does not exist only of subcultures. Following C. Wright Mills, I call the ruling, value-generating (or value-electing) group in a given society the >establishment<. For our subject I consider it important to point out that lots of people share the given norms, values, and so on, accept the given institutions and modes of communication without having the opportunity to participate in the processes of ruling and generating values in accordance with their own interests. Following the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, I call this network of affirmative groups the >compact majority<.

In difference to the establishment, for the compact majority to share the established norms, values, needs, institutions, and so on is not so much a question of property, power, or vested interests, in a lot of cases not even a question of a future career, but usually a result of internalising in a long process of socialization, fulfilled by a lot of agencies: parental education, school system, pressure groups (for example churches), mass media, peer groups. Nevertheless there exist great differences among the groups, networks, class currents, which constitute the compact majority: a whole galaxy of rabbit breeders, motorcycle fans, wave riders, boy scouts, denominations, music-adoring youngsters, gamblers, part-time machineries of established political parties, adorers of old locomotives - to mention only a small segment. Some authors (e. g. Alvin Toffler) tend to misunderstand these groups as subcultures. I prefer to name them >partial cultures< - groups which by and large share the norms, values, institutions, etc. of a given society, generated, or elected by a given establishment, but enriched by a set of special interests which create a number of additional values, objectivations, modes of communications.

Now I come to the first main point of possibly controversial discussion concerning the subject of our meeting: I do not think that one can consider these "partial cultures", which exist beyond doubt in a broad variety of life-styles, automatically as "overlapping cultures". In the majority of receivable cases the given set of values, needs, and objectivations is consistent enough so that it does not to have to be considered as overlapping. The classical example is the life-style of a rural village, where surely moments of partial cultures could be recognized: the fire-guard, the football club, the local rifle men, the preparatory committees for traditional clergy events (usually the annual celebration of the local saint), one or two taverns, the farmers cooperative and its shop. The only significant overlapping fact in these partial cultures results in the expectation - concerning especially the male inhabitants of the village - to subscribe as a member in each of these institutions, or at least in the majority of them. Now one could say that I have named a far too traditional network for our days, a possibly or even probably almost anachronistic one, not fit for today's societal situation. I would deny this. Seen structurally, I have no other impressions concerning the partial cultures in megalopolitan urban areas.

I shall try to show this using the following examples: If one of the central values of a given society has the almost imperative content to watch television on average 2 or 3 hours after daily work - the sanction for deviating from this norm being the growing inability to participate in the small-talk of a majority peer-group -, the special value of the received broadcast is of marginal importance. To quote ironically the late Marshall McLuhan, is the medium the value, and not the message. In analysing overlapping cultures it makes no difference whether the additional values and objectivations reflect themselves in watching commercialised European folk-music reunions, well-designed soap-operas with several hundred episodes, documentaries about the fauna of the Australian desert, or open ended talk shows continuing long after midnight - or even a mixture of all these, raising the strange impression of post-modernism.

I know that this argument is in no way new - it reminds me of a remark of Kingsley Davis that there would be complete freedom in choosing razor blades or shaving machines (not to shave at all, would have been a wholly subcultural perception for Kingsley Davis). In the same vein it would be relevant to speak about overlapping cultures of razor blade users and machinery shavers.

Nevertheless, surely overlapping cultures do exist. To contribute to our common task of explaining the fact of overlapping cultures, I finish my introductory taxonomy with my last not yet defined term, the "pivot person".

Pivot persons are persons which are in continuous close interactions both with subcultures and with the establishment and/or the compact majority - or, in both cases, at least with parts of each. An additional condition is, not to function only downwards in a hierarchical way as an agent of integration to let subcultures diminish. If the theory of cognitive dissonance, as set up by Festinger and Heider, points to the trend to keep a balance between societal reality and individual assumptions in dissolving a lack of balance in the direction of the mainstream of ruling reality, the pivot person is the idealtypical counterpoint to that attitude. Its existence as pivot person depends on the ability to let the cognitive dissonance undissolved - if necessary, for decades.

A pivot unit does not necessarily have to be a single person - there are pivot groups and pivot institutions as well, which tend to function in a similar manner. The term "pivot", originating in French terminology of mechanics, was first used by the famous French utopian Charles Fourier in a meaning, attached to social sciences: to him "pivots" were knots in the network between the members of diverse decentral working and living units. In game theory the behaviour of the pivot player is decisive for the result of the game.

In my use of the word a pivot person (as well a pivot group or pivot institution) acts in a more or less extremely unstable situation and is, therefore, in my view a nearly paradigmatic figure for our subject of plural identities. For it seems impossible to act for a long time in such an unstable situation without effects on the acting person or group; it is necessary to live this instability in the own person or, otherwise, in the group identity of the pivot institution. This seems to be a very abstract statement; as a matter of fact social reality is indeed full of pivot units which are - at the same time - effecting subcultures along established ways and enabling the survival (often enough even in the material sense of the word) of subcultures: the lawyer, defending politically deviant groups; the youth organizations of political parties, churches or trade unions; the friends of the Bohemia (the traditional subculture of artists, writers, musicians), which earn their livelihood in a so-called serious profession; the "wise men" (as Erving Goffman called them), which intend to help the stigmatised involuntary subcultures (e. g. the physically damaged; the mentally handicapped; the unemployed; the homeless; subjects of the Poor Law), without being stigmatised themselves, but familiar and compassionate with the situation of marginalized groups; husbands and wives of members of ethnic minorities. Dozens of other examples could be given.

From integration to survival, the acts of pivot persons and other pivot units differ widely: they include the function of protection (e. g. advertising in newspapers for a fair treatment of refugees); they include informal interventions in established networks; they include, directly or indirectly, participation in subsidising subcultures. To follow the structure shown above: It would be possible to analyse in a similar way the interactions between pivot persons, pivot groups and pivot institutions on the one side, partial cultures on the other side. The expression of "lobbyism", if not a mere euphemism for the influence of rich men and affluent organizations and corporations on the political system, denotes nothing else. As those between subcultures and partial cultures: I have had the opportunity to meet members of a rural subcultural community in the seventies, which joined the local football club to avoid isolation in their new surroundings. They could be named pivot persons between their subculture and the local partial culture (fortunately, they did not choose to join the local rifle men).

In the next step of argument, I intend to reach the field of overlapping cultures, as constituted by pivot institutions. Since I first formulated the above stated position on pivot units, no structural changes took place. Nevertheless there were some developments which allow me to give additional precision to the notion of pivot units.

Here is no place to debate empirically the changes of subcultures during last two decades. Indeed, as has been predictable, the great bulk of the persons, who constituted voluntary subcultures in the late sixties and early seventies, has reached the state of pivot persons - if they are still living and if they did not dissolve their cognitive dissonance by completely integrating into the establishment or the compact majority. (When the twentieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival took place in 1989 some mass media people mocked that the lot of the former participants has meanwhile moved into professions, like medical doctors, teachers, or social workers. What else should they have done ?) (Despite of that, in Germany as well as in Austria, a significant part of these former subcultures took their place in the citizen's movements and initiatives - it can be unequivocally stated that the Green and Alternative political Parties in these countries could not exist without the participation of such pivot persons).

When considered structurally, the appearance of pivot persons as a mass phenomenon shows two main effects: the first is the proliferation of pivot institutions - not only because of specific historical situations did institutions get the function of a pivot institution (e.g. the Lutheran church in the former German Democratic Republic), but the increased number of pivot institutions is also due to the fact that pivot persons wanted, voluntarily, to join their forces in pivot institutions.

In the same process, the other effect takes place, which I want to call the raising of the pivot person or the pivot institution to the second, third, fourth (and so on) power. Human beings are only able to communicate with a limited number of other human beings; this is also true for groups and institutions. In the relation, concerning all acts and contacts of communication, the interaction to other pivot persons increases and diminishes in one and the same act, the interaction as well to subcultural, as well to established members.

In other words: There are situations in which pivot persons exist, which are pivot persons between pivot persons and pivot persons, instead of being pivot persons between subcultures and establishment, as we have seen above. To illustrate: We all know teachers, which have only interactions with teachers, trade union activists, which have only interactions with trade union activists, left wing intellectuals, which interact only with left wing intellectuals.

The same situation can be found among pivot groups and institutions. Without any effort it would be possible to draw several clusters, bundles, bunches, networks of pivot institutions in more or less close contacts to each other - and only the outward oriented knots have still intensive interactions either to the subcultures or to the establishments. The final process could be imagined easily - a state, in which the interaction to subcultures would be vanishing completely: logically would be the meaning of this process as well the dissolution of the pivot units (then: pivot to whom?) as the fading into the establishment or to the compact majority - as a partial culture, maybe still bearing the old group name, but effecting nothing else (example given: the German or Austrian student corporations, nowadays extremely conservative and established, at the beginning of the 19th century a revolutionary organization).

Examples for the clusters and networks of pivot institutions mentioned above would be groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund - a large number of political, cultural, human rights-centred, ecological, self-help-oriented organizations. On the international level, to which should be at least referred at a meeting arranged by the Austrian UNESCO-Commission, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the International Non-Governmental Organizations would be the structural equivalent of these so called Meta-Pivot-Institutions.

Finally I want to refer to the Social Movements. They are nothing else than clusters of subcultures, partial cultures and pivot persons (institutions) (E. g. At the height of the US-American movement in 1968 Hippies, Yippies, Bohemians, Students, the Black Panther Party, parts of the Civil Rights Movement, some other ethnic minorities, and independent radical intellectuals joined into the Campaign against the Presidential election. The feminist movement reaches from established housewives and female politicians to pivot professionals, single mothers and lesbian subcultures. The ecologist movement contains alternative technicians, the biologically growing yeomanry, partial cultural single-issue-initiatives, vegetarian pivot persons, spiritual subcultures, subcultural activists against environment damages).

Mentioning the pivot groups and the social movements starts to support the main thesis of this Expert Meeting. As I said before, the given set of values, whether affirmed or denied, does not guarantee "specific rules of behavior" "in a variety of contexts" - therefore I would express a sceptical attitude towards the idea "any human being lives in a variety of overlapping cultures". Nevertheless the number of persons, living in overlapping cultures indeed, still is growing - and, as the main thesis tries to point out, not restricted to ethnic multiculturality. Even statistically it could be considered, that in most of the real existing given societies the total number of marginalized persons, neglected groups, voluntary and involuntary subcultures, specially repressed people, social movements and pivot institution is likely to be higher than the number of privileged and affirmative class currents - the late Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia has coined the term of the "deviant majority". And beyond the general set of affirmative norms, values, objectivations, destitutions, modes of communications overlapping cultures have been rising and developing. On the level of pivot persons the lawyers mentioned have to present themselves almost at the same time at court and at peer-group-meetings and demonstrations; university teachers like myself have to handle administrative-law-centered commissions (examinations included) and a grassroots-training of knowledge enabling combinations between theory and practice. On the level of social movements the overlapping effect is so strong, that it was at several phases of contemporaneous history hardly possible to differentiate elder remnants of the movement of the late Sixties, and the ecologist, pacifist and feminist movements - the biographical developments and the confluent values narrowed the glimpses for the still existing contradictions. On the level of the "wider objective of the Expert Meeting" the extension across social and ethnic boundaries is remarkable, as to be shown for example in a sentence like "Think globally, act locally". Supported through engagements like that of the Right Livelihood Award (1987), the Indian Chipko-Movement is surely nearer to a German environmentalist than a German propagandist for atomic power plants.

Surely it would be very fascinating to draw a context map, on which the overlapping cultures of a given society would be documented, as they show up empirically.

Concerning multiple identities, this seems more complex to me. To state the existence of multiple identities, as the main thesis does, is a historically authentic assumption at a time when the French philosopher and psychiatrist Felix Guattari writes: "Every human being is a group".

To fulfil this thesis, a whole book will be probably not enough, to show the reasons. Following my subject, it would be an evident statement, to consider the multiple identities of pivot persons, including the pivot persons in social movements, in pivot institutions in overlapping cultures, and in international or transnational fields of interest. (Consider for example the international influences among subcultures: the constitution of the white US-American Beat-Generation out of black US-American Bebop, Japanese Zen-Buddhism, the French author Marcel Proust - to name only few. The spreading of the intellectual opposition movement from the USA to Germany, from here to France and to Austria, meanwhile almost simultaneously to Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Czechoslowakia and several other countries of the world. The raising of Mods, Rockers, Punks, Skinheads in Great Britain, partially a great laboratory of subcultures, and their modifications in other countries, when the subcultural values had been overtaken).

But I am afraid that these considerations of multiple identities are not enough to describe the world-wide tendency. In a very short run I only enumerate, in finishing my talk, some other sources of the rise of multiple identities (in my point of view):

  1. Economically, we cannot end this speech without at least mentioning the hegemonial values of the syndrome >capital accumulation - transnational corporations - world market<. Their double influence lies in the striving for one more or less homogeneous world establishment, therefore to a tendency for annihilating overlapping group identities, regional and national diversities, and at the same time in the spreading of an additional culture to several regions. (Even the large number of English terms in most subcultural languages, their "sociolects" - in analogy to the "dialects" -, shows indirectly the influence of the world market).
  2. Sociopsychically, the hegemony of this syndrome results in a world-wide spreading of strong feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, disownedness and depression. (The slogan of the "society of the two thirds" marks one moment of this development). As a matter of compensation, in a mixture with social changes of the pattern of the nuclear family, the personality image of "narcissism" spreads: if one is in reality somewhat like a human ant, he/she will be the greatest in his/her perception of self. The identity splits up in two sides: the ant-like identity of given reality and the phantasmatic identity of the narcistic image (example given: drug addicts).
  3. In the field of distinct negation "of the states hegemonial situation intentions" have been rising to hold up the original identity against the identity promoted by the world-market syndrome. The effect is again a multiplication of identities: a sometimes strange mixture of, at least, both. I think for instance on the diverse regional movements, on re-animations of local traditions (often in a form, which never has existed originally), of former crafts and of partial cultural moments of the self-help-movement.
  4. A multiplication of identities takes even part in the effects of main established values itself, without giving the opportunity to develop overlapping cultures out of those. According to the Austrian social psychologist Klaus Ottomeyer the ruling values, institutions and objectivations themselves are often enough highly contradictory in themselves: in the field of production at the same time competition and cooperation are afforded, in the field of circulation the beautiful glamour of commodities and commodity piles as well as the real act of buying, selling and bargaining. While as in the field of production only achievement is valuable, in the field of reproduction and consumption intuition is wanted, tenderness and loving care - human possibilities, in no sense compatible with achievement. Psychosis is only the extreme point of the biographical effects of these given contradictions - and I would not find it fair to speak on multiple identities without at least mentioning psychosis as a dangerous extreme of these. As Bateson, Jackson and others formulated in their double-bind-hypothesis, the normative contradictions of cognitive and emotional values in an institution (here especially, but not only, in the nuclear family), without any possibility to escape, are likely to cause psychotic developments.
  5. Another moment causing multiplied identities without forming necessarily overlapping cultures is the permanent change of professional lives which leaves subjected individuals only the choice to integrate the diversified professional identities in some form or another into something like multiplied identities, or to develop a push-button-identity, which leaves without traces, as one could think, one biographical period after the other. (the push-button-identity is in 4) as well a pseudo-alternative, often lived: in the job one could be a brutal executor, at home a tender husband).

My basic assumption concerning societal evolutions until now lies in the fact that - fulfilling the Marxian class dichotomy between property owners and property-less persons - a huge differentiation took place which resulted in a galaxy of, as I like to call it, class currents (somewhere I pointed out some 120). The accumulation and their effects, the permanent change of machineries and professions, of employment and unemployment (causing that classical multicultural paradigm we intend not to discuss here), the rise of qualification processes and retirement intentions - and so on, and so on - have driven forward a process of multiplication in which the contemporary development of subcultures and partial cultures is grounded. They are possibly overlapping, but not necessarily. They multiply identities, surely, but not necessarily with a happy end. They produce pivot persons, groups, institutions, which live in or even as overlapping cultures, but not necessarily with effects for those subcultures and partial cultures, which they overlap. This is my modification of the main thesis - thank you.

© Rolf Schwendter

[*] to be quoted as:
Rolf Schwendter "Partial cultures, subcultures, pivot persons, plural identities", European Expert Meeting "Overlapping cultures and plural identities" (Vienna, 23-26 May 1991) organised within the framework of the UNESCO World Decade for Cultural Development by the Austrian National Commission for Unesco and "Wiener Denk-Werkstatt" at the Adult Education Academy Brigittenau.

(1) SCHWENDTER, Rolf "Theorie der Subkultur", mit >Nachwort 7 Jahre später<; Syndikat, Frankfurt am Main 1981

Überlappende Teilkulturen und Mehrfachidentitäten (1991 - Wien)

Overlapping cultures and plural identities (1991 - Vienna)