Charting the Coordinates of Nowhere
Goth will forever be associated with fantasy. With role-playing. With a bit too much eye makeup and a chip firmly on the shoulder. It’s a reflex to wince at the manners of society and a disinterest in savoir vivre. The goth wants to savoir disparaître. To be left alone and invisible, yet to stay loosely tethered to the world, like a weak wifi signal. The goth keeps dead flowers until the petals burst into dust at the slightest touch.
Goth is the embodiment of a do not disturb sign slung over a motel doorknob or plastered to the threshold of a teenager’s bedroom. The spirit of goth is twinned with a utopian sensibility. A wish to dim the fluorescents and escape the mainstream basicness of the world.
The goth is looking for a different world than the one she’s stuck in. The social contract is a hoax and she the apathetic whistleblower. There’s something utopian in this way of navigating culture. Of staring side-eyed at the present. The goth refuses to accept the status quo or to play well with others. Instead, she creatively occupies a new register of being. She accepts the darkness and shields the light—she chases down her goth utopia by resisting the pressure to fit in, or to care, really.
Goth, as a subculture, as a radical fashion choice, as a post-punk gesture, has outgrown its fringe beginnings. From the early days of the U.K. punk scene, to the darkwave music of the 80s, to goth’s supposed peak in the 90s and its spread across the U.S. to suburban malls nationwide, goth has lived many lives. It’s shape-shifted into a performative catharsis adopted by sad girl Tumblr, and inspired a resurgence of Winona Ryder circa 1990 cosplay. In lesser hands, the thick eyeliner and ripped elbows of the mall goth has gentrified into something far sleeker, and more sterile. Goth has—at its worst moments—become a toothless millennial lifestyle choice. Gone are the days of goth’s grimness, its association to the otherworldly, to the freakish and the morose. In its stead: charcoal-filtered water and all-black athleisure wear.
But we don’t need to lament the loss of some original, true, authentic goth subculture. Dominant cultures always leach off society’s ‘undesirables’ without proper citation. Whereas a decade ago urban corporate culture was tinged with a pseudo-punk sensibility, today wearing head-to-toe black and railing against the state is commonplace. There are no halcyon days of goth to harken back to. Just because something is popular—circulating and exchanged—doesn’t mean it’s corrupt. The goth doesn’t need a myth of purity to exist, she just needs to be kept in indirect light.
Brooding over the frustrations of being a human—the peskiness of flesh, of bones, of hunger, and the inconvenience of other people—is time well used. The digital has only exacerbated the urge to be a sentient brain with no cage of skin. An always-sunny disposition is exhausting, and a day of fake smiling can leave you spent and headachy. But to channel your inner goth and remain in the shadows a while longer before facing the world can be restorative—like yin yoga for your brain; a gently held pose of apathy. To sink into the darker registers of the mind is not the same thing as fetishizing negativity. Holding the position of goth is like tapping into varied registers that aren’t relentlessly optimistic.
Utopia is a process of becoming—it’s an ideal that stretches into the future and is never fixed in time or place. It means, quite literally, no place. But because it exists in the mind and not on a map, its placelessness is always tethered to imagination and creative possibility. Utopia is the fantasy of a better version of the world than the one we’re in. This fantasizing goes much further back than the punk scene that birthed goth. Artists have been charting the coordinates of ideal societies since Thomas More in 1516. Daniel Defoe. Jonathan Swift. Margaret Cavendish. They and countless others have followed in this literary pilgrimage to nowhere. But these are literary utopias, still distant and resilient from the pressures and heft of real life.
If we look closer, to the artists of our own centuries, we can easily find a similar thirst for utopia. In the poems of O’Hara, in the radical Black traditions of Baraka, in the paintings of Basquiat, and in the late verses of Bishop. In Yoko Ono’s faith in kindness and focalization (“Imagine one thousand suns rising at the same time. Dance in the field.”) In the emancipatory image of tears bursting into flame in Beyonce’s “Freedom.” In Kanye West.
“Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport;” writes José Muñoz. “We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” Dreaming new worlds is more than self-care, it is a survival tactic. So even if we think the utopian potential of goth has waned, its disobedient roots can be dug up. While a strain of goth now exists as part of polite society—there’s still room to choke-collar the normal, to insist on the troublesomeness of the concept, and to thrash against the call to conformity.
There are ways of fucking shit up from within a larger economic system, or, say, the fashion industry. Just think of Alexander McQueen’s dark vision of hell and sadism rendered in tulle and lace; Rick Owens’ hooded miscreants plodding down a coveted runway during Paris Fashion Week; Rei Kawakubo defying all conventional standards and silhouettes of beauty and admitting, without batting an eye, that what she finds funny is “people falling down.”
Goth is linked to things, objects, and attitudes that aren’t normally regarded as tasteful—but it is here, within this cognitive space, adrift from the tasteful, that room for freedom exists. There is a loosened sense of what’s possible in tackiness, in negativity, or in being or dressing sad. Goth is one way we can carve out a slightly askew way of being in the world. It’s a step, maybe, toward fulfilling a utopian impulse that some of us just can’t shake.