What Cultural Scenes Can Teach Us About Politics
Scene (noun). An exciting, brief moment in time; with interesting, creative people; who are existing together in the same urban, geographic location.
I graduated college in the late 90s and set off immediately for San Francisco. Naively, what I was looking for there—the midcentury Bay Area of the distant past—hadn’t existed for many decades. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it had more to do with The Subterreanians, West Coast jazz at the Black Hawk, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than the DotCom boom.
When I arrived, I found just enough of the old aesthetic markers; if you squint your eyes, you’d be smoking hash at a hip, late-night party in a Haight Street Victorian, listening to a band warble “St. James Infirmary,” and maybe forget that it wasn’t 1949.
But it required a lot of squinting.
For thousands of others, though, it was the 60s mythology of the Summer of Love that drew them to San Francisco, even as that whole universe had been long gone, too. Along with the Beats of the 40s and 50s, the halcyon days of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane had long been assimilated into the city’s mythology. It had been defined and commercialized; its leading figures were beatified; there were neighborhood walking tours (“see where Jerry got stoned and ate ice cream”); you’d buy your nephew some made-in-China tie dyed swag at the airport.
Both of these fantasies were based on group dynamics, myth and a large dose of reality: (1) an exciting, brief moment in time, with (2) interesting, creative people, (3) existing together in the same urban, geographic location.
It was a scene—a thing so powerful and evocative in the imagination it would draw people to pack their shit and move—sometimes across the country or across the world—in the hopes of getting a piece of some intangible energy that had, in many cases, left the building decades before they were born.
That’s remarkably powerful stuff.
Though the economics of it didn’t make sense to me until much later, the vibrance of a scene was what I was after--and, in retrospect, I now realize it’s impossible to sustain a large number of creative people in a city where a high-paying job (or a trust fund) was a necessity. Even then, though, I quickly realized you’d have to be a professional of some sort to take part in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what kind of career my international affairs degree could get me, and had a strong suspicion it was quite useless when it came to securing a job that I actually wanted.
I took a gig a short bus-ride up the hill, as the manager of a video store on Polk Street. Maybe the only benefit of this job, aside from pocket money, was the chance to be surrounded by the history of cinema all day—and the ability to play music on the loudspeakers in the store. Controlling the stereo was fun: I could be mischievous, and clear the store of customers; more importantly, though, I could hip people to interesting stuff.
That year, I spent a lot of time walking around, up and down hills, and enjoying the mood of the city. A good portion of the money I made got spent at the wonderful local record stores and bookstores all around town. I began to notice that the modern jazz records I was buying were all somehow linked. To one extent or another, they incorporated Jewish, Balkan or Middle Eastern harmonic and melodic structures with the Black avant-garde jazz tradition. Spread across several record labels, the musicians all played in bands with one another, and they played at the same small clubs, often sharing the same stages.
Here was a chance to be an actual participant in a vibrant scene that wasn’t in the rear-view mirror, or an exercise in nostalgia or cultural necrophilia.
Soon I found my way east, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where something exciting and new was happening; unlike San Francisco, what was called the Downtown Scene was a real scene, then at its height of creativity and popularity. The energy was palpable. It was an entire universe, somehow captured within a few dozen blocks in New York City.
Over the last two decades, I was chasing something: San Francisco to New York; back to San Francisco; back to Washington, DC; to Austin, then Dallas, then Austin again; back to DC; finally to Miami Beach. There are reasons why I was drawn to these places, and why I kept moving.
“You left at just the right time,” friends invariably say, “the whole scene fell apart after you left.” I’m neither arrogant nor naive enough to think I’ve been the secret ingredient to the success of these scenes. I realized that I’ve got some kind of weird, intuitive sense for these things, and the ability to sense the infectious, fleeting collaborative energy in a place. I can wake up one morning, realize the energy is gone—that special, evanescent mix of human beings are gone—and make plans to leave and go find it somewhere else.
After a few of these experiences, I started thinking about this phenomenon. What does it mean? What exactly is a scene? What does meditation on this teach us? As we think about these phenomena and try to unpack them, we can learn about the success or failure of aesthetic or political projects. Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack some of these thoughts, specifically as they relate to politics.
Scenes take place within a given time frame and, for that reason, their ambitions are necessarily limited in length and scope. What we understand to be the modern Conservative movement is roughly half as old as the Progressive movement it emerged in order to combat. Both have changed considerably during this time but, arguably, they retain many of their essential characteristics even as personalities come and go with the generations. Another implication of this difference is that scenes are dependent on a relatively specific mix of individuals.
As America unwinds—and there will be much more about this later, and regularly—the local will assume far greater importance in our lives. For the Right, this is emphatically the case, as the Big Sort drives Blue State Reds to migrate to Red States where they have more in common with their fellow citizens.
Of course, the digital world can make up some of this—and unquestionably, the ability to connect with far-flung friends and allies through social media has made many things possible possible. But there is nothing to replace interaction IRL, especially when it comes to incubating collaborative projects.
PART II will get into what makes the characteristics of a scene, as well as the fascinating ups and downs of a political one, the Intellectual Dark Web.