Republic Of Outsiders: The Power Of Amateurs, Dreamers, And Rebels, by Alissa Quart
I had a complicated reaction to this book. On the one hand, there were many–perhaps too many–ways that I could identify with many of the people discussed in these pages and their problems with social norms and expectations as well as our corrupt contemporary culture. On the positive side, I greatly appreciated the way that the author showed herself very knowledgeable of the larger historical context of eccentricity and diy-sensibility that is often forgotten by those who praise contemporary outsider subcultures without recognizing their intellectual outsider forebears. That said, I found something about the book deeply alienating as well, regardless of how aware I am of my own eccentricities and my own status as an outsider . Part of the alienation was due to the fact that the author deliberately chose outsider groups that correspond to certain socially liberal or “progressive” causes and deliberately slanted her discussion away from those whose morals and ideals were close to my own. On a more fundamental level, though, the book was alienating because it looked at the use of identity politics to join people in cult-like connections, which is far removed from my frequently solitary existence. This book, and the author’s perspective, fell into that uncanny valley that was both too close for comfort and too far for full identification.
This book is divided into three parts and takes about 200 pages, making it a quick read even at the risk of being passè and obsolete because of the way that the most popular outsider cultures can become easily swallowed into an increasingly decadent mainstream. First the author tackles aspects of outsider mentalities, from those who seek to overcome the stigma of mental illness (something I am deeply familiar with having been diagnosed with three of them over the course of my troubled life), the so-called sexuality spectrum with its reference to the contemporary politics of gender identity, and the culture of socially awkward but intelligent neurodiverse population along the higher end of the autism spectrum. Then the author turns her attention to those who seek to make movies and music outside of the mainstream by cutting out the cultural gatekeepers and seeking the direct involvement and support of their audience. The author then looks at meat substitutes–something very popular here in hipster Portland as well as the desire to overcome mass marketing and its expenses and the compromises one makes. After this there is a postscript on an abortive attempt to overcome exploitation for the underbanked through an Occupy debit card as well as afterword and acknowledgements section.
Part of my own complex reaction to this book was likely due to the author’s own complexity. This particular author speaks for a great many people who might consider themselves to be cool, after a fashion, or at least part of the left-wing hipster cultural elite. Yet the very outsider elitism that the author represents is always under assault because such outsiders are either stigmatized and rejected with the force of law or the cold shoulder of custom and tradition or they are co-opted into a system and then become part of the wider culture that those who wish to be cool hold in the deepest contempt. Without either being particularly cool or particularly mainstream, I find the author and her approach to be complicated because what she wants is not something that is really in her power to obtain for herself or for others like her–the right to claim a position of cultural elitism from which to criticize the mainstream as reactionary and exploitative without the potential that those opinions and positions will be watered down and co-opted for the corruption of the masses. The author’s awareness that his has all happened before only makes her desire for this time to be different all the more noble but all the more futile all the same.
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