Saturday, July 16, 2011

Subculture through the lens of Sarah Schulman's People In Trouble, Part 1

     Now that I finally wrote the second part in my analysis of different versions of the Tower of Babel story, I thought that I would finally complete my comments on subculture, through the Pet Shop Boys, turning my attention to the reading of the ACT-UP movement provided by Sarah Schulman's novel, People in Trouble.  (You can find the earlier essay, here.)  Since I opened the last section with a quote from Schulman in my reading of the Pet Shop Boys' 'In the Night', I thought I would open my analysis of Schulman with the  coda from the Pet Shop Boys' hit song, 'Opportunities.'  "All the love that we had/ and the love that we hide/ Who will bury us/ when we die?"  The quote radically reverses the mood of the track, flipping from the glib cynicism of the track to a more elegiac form.  The ironic celebration of consumerism crashes to a halt with the reality of the effects of death.  It's difficult not to hear those lines in direct relation to the AIDS crisis, and the profound sense of loss as the pandemic took its toll.  The disease opened the closet doors of stars and celebrities through the obituaries page, and challenged the dubious forms of privilege afforded some wealthy white gay men by the closet.  Much of the first activism around AIDS focused on the care of the dying and the dead, providing food, housing, and nursing.  We might think of this responsibility to the dying as a sort of ethical core to the activist formations around AIDS.  Returning to the lyrics, the final lines of the song pose the fear of dying alone, of being forgotten.  The lyrics link that fear, the fear of dying alone, of remaining unburied with 'the love that we hide', the logic of the closet.

     Schulman's novel is not well known in its own right, but her narrative got a considerable amount of attention due to its relationship to the musical, Rent.  Rent effectively stole its narrative structure from Schulman's work.  However, as Schulman notes in her critiques of the musical, the narrative of Rent shifted the ethical center of the work, making the protagonist straight, rather than gay.  (For a larger conversation on this subject, read Sarah Schulman's longer work on the topic, Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.)  Schulman's narrative focuses on a small set of characters, linked directly or indirectly to the arts community of New York.   The narrative begins by focusing on the lives of lives of the married couple Kate and Peter, an artist and a scene designer, respectively, but it moves away from that focus as it follows Kate's trajectory into the radical political subculture of AIDS activism, a trajectory created by Kate's relationship with the activist, Molly.  The narrative then shifts from a focus on Kate and Peter to move into Molly's milieu of activism as she moves away from Kate and the art world she represents.

      As I previously noted, Schulman's novel opens with the same combination of death and the banality of everyday life, opening with the lines, "It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away.  Some people were dying.  Some people were busy.  Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television." (Schulman 1)  Daily life is defined by distraction, either in the form of dying or in the form of the business of everyday life, whether in the banality of housework or other activities that remain unnamed.  The first scene of the novel involves shopping, notably a purchase of lingerie by Kate for her lover Molly.  The narrative enters into the lives of the characters through the banal ephemera of everyday life, shopping bowling, affairs, and casual racist assumption on the part of the characters.  At the same time the narrative marks its own historical time, with references to the crack epidemic, AIDS, and the growing conservatism of the country.

      Perhaps more significantly for our conversation, Schulman presents a world that is dominated by subcultural formations, gesturing to their cultural domination.  Rather than creating the sort of subversion that was expected by the various Birmingham cultural studies theorists of the 1970's, Schulman placed them comfortably within the neo-liberal city of the 1980's.  Punks, skinheads, piercings, and faded signifiers of the old counter-culture define the background of the narrative, mixing with the extensive description of commodities through the narrative.  Subculture no longer operates as an intrinsically subversive force, operating as one of many potential commodities.  At the same time, subculture is not irrelevant to the question of political struggle, rather one could think of it as constituting the terrain of the struggle, constituting its raw materials.  Subcultural forces are both implicated in the gentrification of the city, as well as the resistance to that force of gentrification.  That struggle is defined by the profound inequality that was beginning to mark the city, the separation between those thriving or surviving in the neo-liberal city, and those who are the dead and the dying.  Justice, the thinly veiled reference to ACT-UP, can only be understood within the nexus of these forces.

      I'll work through those issues in a second post, and leave the discussion for now.

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