It is 2009, and I am packing boxes in my apartment. I live in a big city brimming with opportunity. I have a good job. My education could not have prepared me better for my work. I love my church. I am happily married. My second child is two months old. Everything is splendid. On paper, my life is exactly what I wanted.
But something has not jelled. I’ve resigned from my job, and we are getting ready to move home to Kansas.
You can check all the right institutional boxes—education, career, church, and so on—and still not end up with a life that feels recognizable. Sitting amid my partly packed possessions, I reflect on the fact that the pieces of happiness I’ve strung together have not coalesced into a meaningful shape. My soul feels spread thin across the suburban plains of this sprawling, unfamiliar city. And Newton, Kansas—far away from prospects, from advancement, from opportunity—has somehow come to offer a more compelling way of life.
You can check all the right institutional boxes—education, career, church, and so on—and still not end up with a life that feels recognizable.
Like many people of my generation, my life has been a series of negotiations between traditional spheres of authority, which provide stability and purpose, and what you might call scenes, emergent proto-cultures that provide unpredictability and excitement. We crave the security of the first, but moment to moment we prefer the novelty and variety of the second. Spheres, though, have lost credibility; our mobilized, accelerated age is ill suited to the rigid frameworks associated with them. Scenes by contrast provide a frisson of joy, a serialized education of our desires and judgments that invites us to share in the thrill of discovery. So, unbeholden to spheres, we invest scenes with expectations that traditionally only spheres have been able to fulfill.
The two are related but not interchangeable. A scene is an ethos, an aesthetic, a shared sensibility that binds a group of people together and precedes the institutional authority and organization of a sphere. Scenes are more ad hoc and amorphous, underground yet palpable. Their precise origins are unofficial and unsanctioned; associations are loose; careerism, ambition, and professionalization are eschewed for the sake of authentic expression and creative purity. A scene is the ooze that hardens into the stuff of a sphere.
But spheres ooze the stuff of scenes: an art school might foster a group of artists who share a new set of aesthetic commitments; a church might give rise to a burgeoning movement for cultural renewal; a political party might provide a launching base for a new philosophy of government among its younger members. Spheres and scenes exist in a dynamic interplay between culture and counterculture, between primordial, imaginative immediacy and more determinate, enduring forms and establishments. It is this tension that grants to scenes their energy and vitality.
In what follows I investigate three sites of my own life experience—a music scene, an urban scene, and an online scene—in order to probe the boundary between scene and sphere. For it is in those borderlands, in the traffic between the two cultural spaces and in the way we conceive of them, that we live our life together and find out who we are.
First Movement: Art, Spectacle, and Participation
I am in college. My favourite band is on stage, and they are really getting going. The venue is small and dank and hot. Everyone in here—a couple hundred at most—is cued in to the music. The whole crowd convulses in unison. This is the third time I have seen them this month. I have become a kind of groupie, following them around from show to show. They are a Grateful Dead–type jam band, perpetually on tour, playing long, improvisation-filled sets.
They inspire intense loyalty. I will attend probably over fifty shows in the course of around six years. I show up early, make my way to the front of the crowd, and stay till the end—past the end, hoping to get a glimpse of the band after the show, or maybe even talk with them. Their music speaks to me in a way no other music has. No influence in my life could match theirs for sheer power. They channel the undirected desire of my late adolescent angst into a deep well of emotion I didn’t know existed. My identity centres on the band. I have forged a deep, one-way connection particularly with the lead singer. I play guitar the way he plays, dress like he dresses, and try to be witty and intelligent and deep and winsome in just the way he is.
In his famous essay “Romancing the Looky-Loos,” which is at least implicitly about what art scenes are and how they work, the art critic Dave Hickey distinguishes between what he calls participants and spectators, or looky-loos.
Spectators are those who do not contribute to a scene; they show up only to consume or critique. They appear when word has gotten out that there’s “a scene,” and they seek to benefit by the association. Spectators, Hickey says, “seek out spectacles whose value is confirmed by the normative blessing of institutions and corporations. In these venues, they derive sanctioned pleasure or virtue from an accredited source, and this makes them feel secure, more a part of things.”
Participants, however, give no thought to these things. They create art or share in it simply because they love it, and so they go looking for the next new interesting thing, creating in their desire and their discovery a groundswell of enthusiasm. But they “lose interest at the moment of accreditation, always assuming there is something better out there, something brighter and more desirable, something more in tune with their own agendas.” They move on not because accreditation is bad but because at that point the work of art has lost its dynamism and has become a static object. When artists start romancing the looky-loos, they are seeking the effects of art without giving proper attention to its cause.
I was a participant in Hickey’s sense, more or less. When I discovered the band I ended up so devoted to, I was too young to be in on the ground level, a peer. I didn’t contribute much to the scene, but I was in it for the pure love and joy of the thing, as I sensed they were, and not for the status it bestowed. My enthusiasm brought many more people within their ambit.
Art scenes grow up in particular localities and are often centred on particular institutions: clubs, bars, theatres, auditoriums, concert halls, galleries. Any scene centred on what Hickey calls the “live arts”—arts that are by nature collaborative and performance-based—thrives by means of a series of subtle interactions with larger, more stable cultural institutions. In this sense scenes are dependent on but not coterminous with institutions. The band I followed got its start at a coffee house in Kansas City, the centre of a vital music scene. In the sixties, folk artists collaborated and cross-pollinated in clubs in Greenwich Village. In the nineties grunge scene in Seattle, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (or the bands that would eventually become those bands) all played and interacted and collaborated at the same venues and clubs.
The larger and more active the scene, however, the more unstable this delicate balance becomes. An institution that governs a scene can stifle the life out of it: a music label, say, might take a governing interest in “the creative process,” or a government grant might try to actively determine what counts as art. And art that emerges purely from sponsoring institutions—whether a movie studio or the National Endowment for the Arts—has a whiff of falseness about it. “Works of art,” Hickey says, “that enter the public domain without participatory constituencies”—that is, without scenes—“are instantly recognizable as pale impostors, as institutional furniture purporting to represent constituencies that have yet to materialize.”
Still, scenes and institutions need each other, because the fact is each one lives by the other. If artists weren’t producing great art, there wouldn’t be institutions to support and promote them. And without the supportive cultural fabric of institutional presence and patronage, art would be a purely private affair.
Second Movement: Cities, Culture, and Authenticity
I am married and in grad school. My wife and I have moved to a big city on the coast. We both grew up in small Midwestern towns, and the city is everything our small-town upbringing was not: cosmopolitan, progressive, full of wealth and culture, in a beautiful location. We stay out late at pubs, go to shows, hang out at the beach eating Thai food and watching the sunset. Walking the streets, I feel like I am part of something bigger than I am, in a place where Important Things Happen. Friends from all over come to stay with us because we live in a destination location. We know the local haunts and avoid tourist spots. Our city evokes a special kind of non-jaded earnestness and loyalty, even among otherwise jaded, terminally ironic hipsters.
A city’s culture is an amalgamation of any number of smaller, more fluid scenes. However much a city prides itself on its distinctive scene, whether it’s keeping Austin weird or keeping Vancouver walkable, it relies much more on institutional authority to support its culture than does an individual art scene. But it’s a complex dialectic process. Take Austin: Austin’s weirdness was originally ad hoc and emergent, a gauzy texture of art scenes, music scenes, food scenes, and so on, often enough explicitly anti-establishment in posture. But the Austin scene was taken up (or co-opted, depending on your perspective) by the incredibly-boring-sounding Austin Independent Business Alliance, whose focus is institutional things like planning departments and zoning laws. Weirdness became an abstraction: a marginal, anti-institutional atmosphere turned into the dominant, face-forward ethos of the city, bolstered by chamber-of-commerce types and sought out by tourists, at which point it became worth asking whether Austin was actually weird anymore. For those who remembered Austin’s prior weirdness, the answer was surely no, and authentic weirdness—the places that hadn’t been inundated by looky-loos—was claimed again for the margins.
The meta-topical self-awareness of Austin’s weirdness has become a national cultural talking point, but the conversation itself is interesting. It represents a desire to get at some authentic kernel, to preserve it or rejuvenate it, which speaks to the difficult interplay of scene, culture, institution, and authority in North American culture at large. The authentic self-expression inherent in Austin’s weirdness thus both operates independently of institutional authority (and often enough in opposition to it) and depends on it for spaces that enable its preservation and flourishing. What the city of Austin wants to preserve is the epiphenomenal idea of weirdness, an intangible cultural je ne sais quoi that probably started to die the moment somebody decided it was important to keep Austin weird.
I don’t mean to pick on Austin. I dwell on it, though, because it’s the story of virtually every large city in North America. When I lived in Vancouver in the mid-aughts (for yes, reader, that is where I lived in grad school), friends talked about how Portland was where all the vital music scenes and foodie scenes were now. In fact a friend of mine explicitly said that Portland was like Seattle had been in the nineties—anticipating Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen by a good five or six years, who in the first episode of Portlandia march down the street with a bunch of urban hipsters singing, “The dream of the nineties is alive in Portland!” In 2007 an independent record-store owner trademarked the phrase “Keep Portland weird,” unintentionally signalling the end of Portland’s weirdness. Sorry, losers.
Every city has a scene, an ethos that comes to be seen by outsiders as definitive of the local culture, and it’s that scene that people come to expect when they visit. The problem is, it’s constantly changing. Every time I visit a new city I experience scene anxiety. I fear I’m going to miss the real thing, that I’m going to hang out not at the places where the real scene is but at the places where the scene has already played out, like I’m going to experience a simulacrum of the city I want to visit, a faded copy of a copy. I want to be a participant, not a spectator, even though what I’ve come to do is to spectate.
Maybe this is all emblematic of the aporetic dysfunction inherent to late capitalist societies, or it’s an aspect of the Heraclitean flux at the heart of the postmodern condition. Professors of cultural studies were all saying things like this back in the nineties, probably at places like Reed College or UT Austin. But maybe that’s just what scenes do. Scenes are always bubbling up, blooming, flourishing, and decaying. Scenes grow into movements, and movements move; they change; they are born, they grow, they die. Their movement, however, takes place against the stabler background of the institutions they live with reference to but are not equal to. Eventually scenes and the cultural artifacts they produce are integrated into those institutions, or they foster the creation of new ones. They just become “the culture,” or part of it. When that happens, they “must necessarily mean less,” Hickey says, “but to a lot more people.”
Third Movement: The Internet, Influence, and Authority
I am in my late twenties, and I am reading a political and cultural blogger. It is safe to say I have fallen under his sway. In classic online fashion, I learn about most current events through his analysis rather than reading the news, and when I do happen to learn about a developing issue from a traditional journalistic source, I immediately go to his blog—even suspending my own judgment until I do—to get his take on the issue. He articulates a way of being in the world that speaks for me and allows me to participate more fully in the kind of life he describes. Somebody else out there gets it, gets me, better than anybody else does—better than my family, better than my workplace, better than my church, certainly better than my government. On the one hand, it troubles me that I am dependent on someone else to determine what I should think about various issues. On the other hand, I take comfort in knowing there is someone I can trust to have an informed take, an authority of sorts, if only based on the fact that I agree with him, or he agrees with me—I am dimly aware that the line between the two has become a little blurry.
The internet is made up of countless scenes, less layered and agglomerated than the multi-textured cultures of cities but more individually compelling because more tailored to each individual. The granularity of online scenes is extremely fine. We can choose a niche within a niche within a niche to represent our identities and desires and interests—whether that’s art or politics or sexuality or metallurgy or re-enacting Civil War battles or crafting miniature dollhouse accessories or breeding butterflies or any combination of any site of interest or enthusiasm conceivable. The ease with which we can seek out and become participants in our chosen scenes bestows a hypnotic sense of recognition and belonging. C.S. Lewis’s insight about shared objects of desire as the basis for friendship—“What! You too? I thought I was the only one”—is no less powerful for being more readily available.
The writer Katherine Dee has argued that the extra-intense level of participation provided by fandom communities online is at least partly responsible for the current state of our politics. For it was in those fandom spaces, particularly Tumblr, where “the oppressed, the abused, misfits, and just plain weirdos” found “not only a support system, but a structure, and identity.” That made it a natural place for identity politics, which centres on oppression, victimization, and alienation, to spread beyond the university, and a million little fragmented, online scenes crystallized into a much more solid, institutionally stable culture. Which at least partly explains how in 2007 (the year Tumblr was created) transgenderism was still mostly a sitcom punchline and by 2021 the US military had established the LGBTQ Initiative Team.
Shared objects of desire, however, can just as easily be shared objects of animus. Those who speak with the most moral force—whether in politics or religion or just straight distilled resentment—create the strongest communities of affinity around themselves (and generate the most clicks). Certainty can stave off a buttload of anomie, and the ultra-reinforcing like-mindedness of niche communities can harden the meaning and purpose that certainty provides into a brittle, overdetermined sense of right and wrong, who’s good and who’s bad.
We might be talking about online communities of white-supremacist sleeper cells or jihadist organizations, but our ingrained desire for meaning and purpose and belonging need not manifest itself in radicalized ideologies. It might in fact go in the other direction. Someone emerging from an overly rigid fundamentalist community might find solace or empowerment in an online blogger who defines herself in opposition to certainty, and then, in a delicious irony, evangelize for the virtues of doubt, mystery, and ambiguity with a dogmatic fierceness unmatched by their erstwhile fundamentalism. The self-reinforcing echo-chamber quality of online life has a homogenizing effect: it purifies our interior world of complexity and nuance and seals us off from other perspectives. The moment we find ourselves having transcended unenlightened categories of right and wrong, or left or right, or us versus them, is as often as not the moment we’ve merely exchanged one set of biases for another. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve finally found it, I’ve finally found the real, true thing, only to later realize I had just become the type of guy who thinks he’s found the real, true thing.
I’m getting carried away. These sorts of online communities can indeed be liberating, and I have benefited from friendships and communities formed exclusively (or almost exclusively) online. I am on Twitter, and by and large I enjoy it. The thing is, when I don’t, I simply log off. I am not accountable to the platform or to the people on it, nor they to me. But I get the impression that I am in the minority. Last year I read an essay by a thoughtful writer who was interrogating her very real anxiety exacerbated by online life. But never once did it occur to her to take a break. Furthermore, I regularly see what appear to be otherwise well-adjusted people on Twitter address others on their timeline as “Fam” (often followed by a very personal announcement), which strikes me as a weird sort of omni-directional codependence, as well as a telling commentary on the role online scenes tend to play in the void of stabler families and communities.
These three types of scenes—art, city, internet—function differently from one another and at different levels of society, but they all share similar contours. They are all voluntary, based purely on election and affinity, and they all also have a staying power that outstrips more traditional forms of community and identity like families, schools, churches, and political parties. The interesting question is, Why?
Dave Hickey again puts his finger on it. In a different essay, “Unbreak My Heart, an Overture,” he ruminates on why 90 percent of pop songs are love songs, when so much of human experience lies outside adolescent infatuation. “We need so many love songs,” he says,
because the imperative rituals of flirtation, courtship, and mate selections that are required to guarantee the perpetuation of the species and the maintenance of social order—that are hardwired in mammals and socially proscribed in traditional cultures—are up for grabs in mercantile democracies. These things need to be done, and, being free citizens, we won’t be told how to do them. Out of necessity we create the institution of love songs. We saturate our society with a burgeoning, ever-changing proliferation of romantic options, a cornucopia of choices, a panoply of occasions through which these imperative functions may be facilitated. It is a market, of course, a job and a business, but it is also a critical instrumentality in civil society.
Our participation in scenes provides the rituals of social embeddedness that give shape and significance to our lives. The ordering institutions, communities, and families in North American society have been largely dismantled and deemed irrelevant. Sites of creative expression—largely the purview of scenes—have taken their place. But as I’ve observed, scenes operate in a co-productive, interlaced symbiosis with traditional authority structures and institutional presence, not in antagonism toward them. Scenes require stability lest they become purely chaotic. The traditional alignment between creative expression and stable institutions has not just been reversed; it has migrated, as Hickey notes, from family and community to business and market. And while the market has a positive role to play in civil society, it does not have your best interests in mind the way a rightly functioning family or community does.
The relative permanence and stability of a family or a school or a church or a political party brings with it not only authority but also accountability that is prolonged over a lifetime (and beyond in religious contexts), providing that social embeddedness that enables a person to encounter the world from a fixed point. A scene, by nature ephemeral and transitory, can only provide ephemeral and transitory encounters. When we log on to Instagram, for instance, the influencers we follow lack any recognizable form of accountability proportional to the influence they wield, whether the influencer is trying to sell you something or trying to help you improve your spiritual life (or both). But in our desire for that fixedness—for that meaning and purpose and identity and belonging—the expectations that come from stabilizing institutions bleed into our expectations for scenes. We come to demand it, in fact. Five years ago Tish Harrison Warren unleashed waves of fury when she suggested that it was maybe a problem that the level of influence and authority women bloggers held was not matched by any structures of accountability. Remember Hickey: we won’t be told how to reassemble the “imperative rituals” of society that no longer obtain in the same way.
The word “scene” is apt. A scene is a work of representation, set on a stage as part of a dramatic performance, a mirror of life that depends on a more stable, lasting reality for its verisimilitude. And while representation can deepen and enrich our encounter with reality, it cannot become a substitute for it. Otherwise we float from one scene to another, shedding each role when we grow out of it or discover a new one or simply no longer find ourselves interested. We play our parts in scenes so that we can express ourselves, and when the scene is over, we find a new venue for self-invention.
For whatever reason my personality lends itself to this lightness of being. In every scene I’ve been a part of—whether musical, urban, online, or otherwise—I’ve kept a critical, aesthetic distance. I keep one hand on the pull cord, just in case, which allows me to maintain the ability to probe for weakness, to observe without accountability or commitment. Even when I’ve come closest to being a true believer, as I was in each of the scenes I participated in above, those times have always been punctuated by periods of ironic reserve, those moments at a concert when I stand in the back and observe a group of fans that don’t seem to understand how distasteful their earnestness makes them look. In this way I am able to seek out a deeply identity-forming experience on no one’s terms but my own, and to hedge my bets at the same time. I’m not a spectator, not a looky-loo, but neither have I shed the cool, critical distance by which I keep myself self-aware.
But ironic self-awareness can wear a person thin, and so I have sought out forms of stability that push against transience and weightlessness, particularly friendship, place, and family. Which is why I found myself packing my boxes in 2009. I moved away from the big city and back to a small town, where my family lives and where I grew up. It’s not what everybody can do, and I wouldn’t presume to recommend my path as a prescription for everyone. Small towns can have oppressive scenes of their own, characterized by the moral chaos left in the wake of crumbling families and institutions and civic life, and addled by meth and opioid addiction. But I think what I did was discern that non-commitment had become a way of life, and the only way to overcome my attachment to non-attachment was to take away the options that kept me sliding from one scene to the next in an effort to find significance and excitement, and instead to find things worth giving my allegiance to. In what might be the most countercultural move possible, I sought to explore what it means not to express myself but to receive myself from the people and the places of my upbringing, to see how it is that who I am has in fact been given to me.