First pass on scenes today. Next chapter of Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy on Friday, probably?

Current Trajectory

Four months and 80-odd posts ago, I plucked the idea of the “tribe” as a fundamental form of human organization (alongside the Institution, the Market, and the Network) from this RAND paper. I very quickly broadened this definition from strictly “kin-based” to based on a sort of Lakoffian “values-based” definition while I spent some time mulling on apologetics, rhetoric employed to defend and elevate the tribe. I also sort of muddle this conception of the “tribe” with Huizinga’s “Play Communities”, enshrouded with their own internally-important rules and mythologies, crafted by the sharing of values and narratives, and the exchange of shibboleths and fictional truths, some conscious and others implied.

People and language are important, but perhaps there is a social architecture that is common between particular events that we might have seen at the Home Brew Computer clubs, or at MIT’s famous Building 20, or Woods Hole? Something about being at the same place and the same time, creating temporary play communities, constructing ideas and artifacts, and then disseminating it elsewhere.

Last year, I sat in on a presentation by Seb Paquet about Scenius, and I took some notes (that I lost! Miserable.). I had heard the word ‘scenius’ in a previous life but never paid it much mind before.

(Music) Scenes Redux

From my ending thoughts in a recent post (Sorry for quoting myself again so soon. I know how this must look…):

The same meaning-building/tribe-building rhetorical formula can be applied to music: there are tastes to be acquired, different audiences and knowledge bases in mind, different delivery traditions to tap into or innovate on, and this odd sense of “musician’s musicians”, who are too weird for the mainstream but fascinating to other practitioners. Since everyone listens to music, it’s more obvious that music seems to come from particular scenes. Different places are hotbeds of certain music- some scenes are born and die; others are quickly mainstreamed or appropriated by very different cultures from the birth-scene. Maybe there is enough cross-cultural connection that the music or other artifacts have approximately the same effect on non-target populations (and maybe after some fine-tuning, a scene’s sellouts/evangelists can keep some elements of their roots and adapt elements familiar to their new intended audience).

Many art movements are spawned by scenes where ideas mixed and inspired expressions in various distinct fields: Rococo in Paris is based on an idea (or a reaction, anyway), and is expressed in architecture and painting and theatre and literature. The early hip hop scene in south Bronx is expressed in rap (lyricism), turntabling (record manipulation), breaking (dance/performance), and graffiti (visual). The same convergence of tribes, their shared meanings/values/environs and were originally responsible for the different forms of the same scene/movement. Most would agree that the artifact most remembered and appropriated from the Rococo scene is the ornate cream-colored architecture and decoration; the eminent aspect of the hip hop scene is mostly rap itself. These aspects have been divorced from their birth-scenes and re-appropriated.

There are some interesting qualities to hip hop: maybe because traditionally it’s values are tied to expressions of the marginalized, there often seems to be a focus on very local concerns. I think that as a result, people wear their nearest influences on their sleeves. Even some of the most world-famous rap songs are very explicit about the neighborhood it came from, for example. There’s a lot of thanking of the Elders, representing the Record Company, and calling out the Others on their incorrect mythologies or recent wrongs. Beefs (which are mostly displays of machismo) arose very early between neighborhoods in South Bronx; then between the Bronx and Queens; as spores planted on the West Coast* grew into a different strain of hip hop that would eventually produce Straight Outta Compton, the two separate coasts and their separate styles/histories came into conflict. One of the most popular rap acts of all time, Outkast, later hailed from Atlanta at a time where the entire region was not considered a player in this particular game. The next few years would find the South to be a hotbed of activity.

*- I asterisk the West Coast clause because, in West Coast ideology the two coasts shared influences and definitely were born together, not one-from-the-other. As an East Coaster, I find this assertion ridiculous. (I’m joking. I don’t care.)


Scenes communicate with very different scenes. It seems that some people are more likely to seek these sort of subcultures. The Beastie Boys were swimmers in the punk scene and the early hip-hop scene. Scenes can also be built on the fertile ashes of older scenes/movements/subcultures. The hippies died out but, like Spengler’s high cultures (am I getting too self-referential?), they might leave behind ideas and artifacts for others to appropriate. Only last year I was startled to find that kindly old Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation has been a sort of countercultural maven for decades, influencing other people who have influenced me long before I could identify him.

Here comes the loose first-pass at definitions.

Until I find a better definition, I will try to distinguish a scene as a subcultural event that is fixed to a space and time period and is focused on generating and exchanging some sort of expression based on some mutually grounded idea. As it’s name might suggest (deliberately or accidentally?) it’s an event, like a party or a game, rather than a group of people or a fixed location as such. People in a scene engage in the minimal grounding necessary to appreciate the scene’s craft and its important symbols and rituals. A movement is a diaspora of some aspect of some scene’s expression, spawned by one scene and producing replica scenes or disseminating into the local culture. A subculture is a loose tribe espousing unique values and signals from the broader culture. Some subcultures may predispose themselves to engaging in scenes that reflect something about their values. A counterculture is a more openly/deliberately subversive than just any subculture, deliberately positioning itself in opposition in some respect to the majority culture.

Scenes are often described as a convergence between different subcultures, an event like a weather front.

Scenes require/generate [hm? I’ll ignore the arrow of causation and just say “include”] inspirations, innovators, socialites, and tastemakers. They include dedicated disciples and casual observers. Individual geniuses tend to get an outsized amount of the credit, but there is usually a supportive ecosystem of fellow producers, critics, and followers who could lay a causal claim to some of a scene’s output and its overall shape.

Seb made the point that successful scenes have very shallow on-ramps. Human churn and diversity is important to a scene’s success. Some of the examples I’ve cited, in fact, may not be scenes at all because of their relative difficulty to enter- I haven’t found a good, specific delineating line to entertain on this.

Slide 8 from Seb's deck
Slide 8 from Seb’s deck

In Seb Paquet’s image above, the Geek archetypes take the role of historian of the scene. They define play-spaces, name norms, create outlets, standardize information, and connect people with each other and other aspects of the scene. They curate best-ofs and make introductions. They draw narrative lines through the pulsing chaos of the scene. 

The Prophet is a sort of champion of the scene, the “unofficial spokesperson” who articulates the values of the scene, cohering the insiders and attracting nearby outsiders to take part.

The Enthusiasts/Groupies are a great element to this image. They are the lifeblood of the scene through their support and through exchanges of ideas within and beyond the scene. Groupies, to my understanding, are more connected to individual creators than to the scene at large; Enthusiasts by contrast are more interested in the artifacts/expressions being produced, and might engage in more of the scene’s Geekdom, acting as vectors for various histories and values; eventually a canon is developed and established. The canons most likely to be developed will not be necessary true in a dispassionate sense, but are memetically powerful, capturing particular values and hailing particular heroes (individual geniuses, of course), and possibly discharging a Movement (a Nova-type event). If a canon is too low-energy when it becomes settled, I think, the shuffling and dynamicism that makes a scene attractive begins to slow and the scene ossifies and decays.

The potential futures of a dying scene, according to Seb: A mythology; a product; spare parts for future scenes, a market.