An Alternative to Alternativity

By Nick Webber on June 14th, 2021

This post was co-written by Hazel Collie and Nick Webber

According to the provocation for this year’s Alternativity theme, alternative cultural practices ‘exist in symbolic opposition to, or a deviation from, a perceived “mainstream”’. They are associated with resistance and subculture; and yet, for both of us, the concept of alternativity itself provokes resistance. Through highlighting specific values – ‘innovation, independence, and authenticity’, alongside connections to ‘breadth and flexibility’, ‘DiY aesthetics and ethics’ – the discourse of the alternative claims to address the interesting and the unfairly overlooked. But we see these claims as problematic, laden with assumptions and founded upon highly subjective judgements of value. In particular, we are concerned that the alternative sketched here represents a set of counter-hegemonic practices – ‘practices which will attempt to disarticulate the existing order so as to install another form of hegemony’ (Mouffe 2005: 18).

There are many ways in which ‘alternative’ scenes and people are coded as edgy and cool (in populist understandings, if not academic definitions), and are often also coded as male, and as white: the very groups who maintain power in most other fields of human experience. This sense of the alternative, extensively visible in the literature on subcultures, perpetuates exclusion. Similarly, arguments which suggest the alternative is authentic (and thus, by extension, the mainstream is not) seem uncomfortably close to an elitist, Frankfurt School position on culture, in which mass production and consumption strips the aura from art. Indeed, the pursuit of authenticity is both increasingly cynical and a reproduction of inequality: Susanne Knaller and Harro Müller (2006: 8) talk of a ‘global authenticity industry’, and Esther Wright argues (2019: iv), in her study of RockStar’s historical video games, ‘that the pursuit of ‘authenticity’ leads to an oversimplification of historical complexities, while textual and paratextual content overwhelmingly privilege white masculinity, confining all others to the margins’.

The people who are left out of this are, of course, the very people who are always left out. Even attempts to include them – ‘alternative histories’ – are often framed discursively as ‘hidden histories’, perhaps to soften the blow of what is often deliberate (even mendacious) neglect. And how are we to reconcile the histories of ordinary people and their domestic lives with the idea that they are ‘alternative’? To suggest that these voices are alternative simply because they have been excluded from traditional historical sources is uncomfortable, and an extraordinary contortion. Hazel has worked extensively with middle aged women, older women and migrants, and many of these research participants would not recognise or label their behaviour as ‘alternative’, viewing it as very much situated within everyday practice. These are ‘mainstream’ experiences, but ignored within ‘mainstream’ discourse. Does alternativity promise to resist both of these things? Where does that leave these histories, these people?

For us, the discourse of alternativity lays claim to the entire domain of the alternative, setting into opposition two modes of elitism which struggle to preserve or install their hegemony. In doing so, it ignores the everyday negotiations made by people without obvious forms of power. Yet just because something is ‘an alternative’, it does not follow that it is also ‘alternativity’. Following de Certeau, we see alternativity as the domain of strategy; but it is tactics which interest us here: ‘…because it does not have a place, a tactic depends upon time – it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities”’ (de Certeau, 1984: 17). Acts of resistance, as we work around the power structures imposed on us, do not always represent alternativity.

So discourses of alternativity, drawing on ideas of the cool, white male and the authentic, represent – and re-present – arguments for the elite over the everyday, of the small and specific contra the mass. They are grounds for the re-creation of forms of hegemonic order, and continue to marginalise many of those marginalised within the space of the mainstream. Alternativity, then, perhaps denotes an alternative cast in terms of the existing norms it purports to resist. Elsewhere, small acts of resistance and negotiation, tactics which don’t necessarily take place as an alternative to anything, are, for the powerless, a means of making do.