One quick answer is that, especially for those who apply it to themselves, "tribe" is a much warmer term than "class" is, is much warmer than any other available term except for "family," in fact is in use precisely because it suggests a family-like bond but can be used for groups larger than the family, can be used for strangers with whom one might nonetheless sense a strong attachment, a feeling of being potentially at home with them — but "tribe" also carries the potential of leaving you alone and apart and under threat when you're not with your tribe or family but are instead dumped into what feels like someone else's, or in a shack in that family's back yard, or you're born into the wrong one.
So "tribe" here feels more emotionally apt than the other available terms and doesn't have the negative connotations that adhere to words like "clan" or "caste" or "ethnic group" or "religion" or "nation."
Prior to reading my first post, Mark Sinker, who was busy celebrating his birthday instead, emailed me this comment based on the title and the first few sentences:
On Friday I was interviewing and filming my old friend Liz Naylor... She was describing how the rock press in the 70s — and the free press and the alt press and the zine press — were her substitute for going to university, basically. She came from a suffocatingly cloistered working-class home in Hyde, which is a small satellite town of Manchester (also world capital of serial killers: the Moors Murderers and Harold Shipman). She grew up in a house with no books; no access to "culture" in the sense of films or music or art or anything. School was no help: it just amplified the announcement that if any of this stuff exists — books or films or music or art — it is NOT FOR THE LIKE OF YOU, LIZ. In desperation, she set off for libraries, independent bookshops and record shops, Fall gigs etc. The rock press, she says, is "how I located my tribe" — meaning (at first bite) other feminist lesbians of mischievous punky bent, committed to a lifelong battle with self-destructive urges, and (at second) always somewhat in truculent contention with any group she appears to be declaring herself part of.My immediate response to Mark, unsurprisingly, was that her family is what Liz was escaping from as well, and also "This is how I located my tribe" is akin to "This is how I located my self" (via locating my true kin in opposition to my mere biological kin), this is where I live, this is true vibrancy. Whereas, "This is how I located my class," would've missed this resonance, that she'd found her home, her people, "class" being too obviously contingent, being somewhere she's stuck, maybe, or something she might leave or lose — contingent of course being EXACTLY WHERE SHE IS, imo. (Her "truculent opposition" might be precisely because she feels a familial bond, hence somewhat trapped again, but (also) might be because she's not in a class but in class systems, which give us the background feeling that we're behaving out of continual choice and that locations are precarious.) "Tribe" is false here, but it is in use precisely because it seems to explain the socioemotional pull of the group.
If she'd said "The rock press is how I located my class," it would immediately have necessitated a second level of explanation: because surely (or anyway at first listen) her "class" is what she was ESCAPING from.
Fwiw, this is one way social mobility happens, through the leaving and finding of cultures.
One thing about actual tribes is that they're fundamentally not a choice. Maybe in some instances you could defect from one tribe to another, or one tribe could split off from another; but my assumption is that mostly you were either born into one or you married into it, with occasional people being kidnapped into it.
Liz made a heartfelt choice, almost a romantic one, like modern marriage — but in a sense by calling it a tribe she cast it as not a choice: perhaps the tribe she discovered would have been her one-and-only tribe even had she not discovered it. Without it, she'd have wandered in the wilderness. Those were her people, even if she hadn't found them. Of course, like modern romantic marriage, she could actually go through a break up, and likely will, likely did. But when she found it, it felt like forever.
Actually, in a clip that went up on Mark's Kickstarter site, what she says is, "there was just this real sense of survival, of needing to kind of go out in the world and find my tribe, find my people," which is a bit different from saying "how I located my tribe": the first makes it a search, puts the tribe in her future, with perhaps a sense of creativity, not just looking for her tribe but helping to bring one into existence. (This makes my riff above on the "one-and-only" even more questionable than it already was, since Liz may never have exactly found her "tribe." Mark says, "i'd have to check if elsewhere she says she found her tribe — i think she did mention it more than once." Also, "she's using the word slightly flippantly anyway (to mean, 'it's absurd to imagine such a thing could exist but what else do i call it?')."**
* * *
The next post will return to what got me going last time, the use of the term "tribal" by Krugman, Klein, DeLong et al. to identify problems, "tribe" not being altogether a pejorative, but "tribal" being used to connote an impediment, something that prevents people from seeing clearly and acting for the overall public or general benefit.***
But in the meantime I'm pasting in the rest of my email convo with my buddies Mark Sinker, Luc Sante, Don Allred, and John Wójtowicz:
LUC SANTE (referring to my urging people not to use the word "tribal"): Right on, Frank. Note that the trope will soon be celebrating its 50th birthday.
[Inserts "Gathering of the Tribes" poster from 1966]
DON ALLRED: I've always dug Dick Dale's album title Tribal Thunder, and probably used it in a review or preview, but only when totally justified (I hope)
MARK SINKER: [See above for the start of what he wrote about Liz. This follows.] Now maybe we do indeed need to remove a word from the language to engender this discussion: to properly explore the difference between the social group you're born into and the social group you discover affinity with and move away towards as a teenager (or possibly earlier, but absent books etc you don't have the means physically to move out and about at a pre-teen age). The difference between the class you seem to belong to before you can read, and the class you feel you belong to afterwards (the role of literacy in class formation/recognition is very large, and very under-discussed in my opinion). But I was filming Liz for quick words on-screen that everyone would understand — she knew that "located my tribe" with a rueful twinkle would, given what she'd already been saying and the context of the film, be immediately apprehendable in a way that other words likely weren't. (Not least bcz this was a reference to a particular time in located social history = the late 70s in the UK, when the notion of "subcultural tribes" was widespread, and that too had to be got across quickly and effectively.)
In other words, the context was not one where proper deep exploration was being called for. The joke use — semi-joke use — of "tribe" was a signal that yes, we both know we're taking shortcuts here.
I can't really push back too strongly against the "delete a word from the lexicon" tactic, since it's exactly what I argued for re "influence": stop using it, say what you're saying another way. Obviously to me the more simpatico subject-head for this email is "In modern political and social groupings, there's NO SUCH THING AS A TRIBE"
I am seeing Adam Ant on Friday, recreating KINGS OF THE WILD FRONTIER, to write abt same for maura mag and for my book. "Tribal" was quite specifically a term that Adam (and also Bow Wow Wow) were playing with in the early 80s, picked up from Malcolm McLaren, probably. McLaren had zero interest in sociological precision, of course — he wanted to fuck things up.
Currently my title for the Adam book is WILD FRONTIERS: ADAM ANT AND THE WAR OF POP ON ROCK
so all of this is germane
FRANK: Interestingly, Luc and Don and Mark all immediately lit on positive uses of "tribe," whereas I was fundamentally addressing the pejorative, the attempt to use "tribal" as an explanation for why WE believe in global warming and THEY don't and why they won't listen to reason, etc,, cause their tribe forbids it and this tribalism colonizes or cannibalizes their brain. So I'm aiming my broadside at the Kleins and the Krugmans, who are struggling against this so-called tribalism and who need to understand better what they're actually struggling against. That said, the positive use has flaws that are complementary to the negative. [This followed by a lot of the stuff I printed above.]
DON: I'll read it all, but already thinking of the wry, wistful, prob provisional way Liz is using it (maybe thinking of the Slits cavorting in "native" gear for photogs, re the punky feminist mischief Mark references re what young Liz was going for) vs. the more literal way it can be used by political commentators (left and right), which tends to reduce and harden and dismiss — "They're just Different, whattayagonnado." Saw a book at library yesterday: Neurotribes. Will take a look.
Oh yeah, and review-wise especially, would be good to get away "tribe," "niche," etc. and directly specify which affinity group etc (also, as much as word count will allow, away from gen ref to other artist—— for instance, being seeing Prince mentioned a lot, starting way before he died, but with no indication of how the reviewed music/muso actually pertains to any Princely elements, individually or in config, or Princely vibe) (Maybe worse: the mention of Prince etc. to give added value/significance) (I've done it both ways, must cut back)
LUC: It seems to me there are many strands here — too many divergent (sometimes convergent) uses of the word. The identification with Native Ams etc. (from Human Be-In to the Slits) looks embarrassing now in the era of callouts for cultural appropriation (I have a young friend who attends ultra-PC Hampshire, where a kid on his floor was officially reprimanded for c.a. for looking like a wigga). And I agree that "class" is very often what is actually meant. But often in my own life I've used "tribe" in a way that is similar but not identical to Liz's use, not just as a sociocultural grouping but as something like non-blood family. When I say, as I have (not recently), that I didn't find my "tribe" until I went to college, I'm not referring merely to tastes and beliefs and inclinations but to something deeper than that — to people who gave me a feeling of belonging that I never got from my family or friends or classmates in earlier years. And I find myself (wordlessly) still thinking that way about a dozen or so people at the core of my life. Okay, I guess I say "my people."
MARK: Wild frontier-era adam is going to be fun to write abt in "cult app" terms, tho I have a line developing
I have seen young ppl furiously angry abt the "gang of four" for example
FRANK (regarding Liz): But damn it, it's a class, even if it's a somewhat ad hoc one, and her choosing it was partly owing to the way her parents cast her choices. They couldn't have been merely working class but rather a particular antiintellectual take on working class that consciously or subconsciously rejected the British and European tradition of working-class intellectualism (I don't know how strong it is, but it's certainly stronger than any equivalent in the U.S., where it is near nonexistent) and I'm guessing were afeared of cultural diversity as well. And she consciously chose mobility, and found an alternative class that she could culturally master, a class that actually wielded power and had relations to other classes. It sounds like she found a variant on what in 1987 I was calling a musical marginal intelligentsia, one without much income but with a lot of influence nonetheless, enough to push music in a PBS direction, I was claiming then; and a question I was starting to ask myself was from where in the culture at large did this musical marginal intelligentsia derive its authority: a question that the word "tribal" is totally unhelpful in answering.
[Regarding the wigga kid: Inserting this now, not part of the original email chain. Don't want to go too much into what Hampshire did to that kid, 'cause this'd detour our conversation; but on its face it seems vastly more embarrassing and fucked-up than the Slits or Be-Ins, which were naïve and are now horrifically dated but were never attempts to bully or scapegoat people. Not that I know that that's what Hampshire was doing, as I'm getting this from a brief parenthetical sentence at third remove and don't know the event at all. But to my jerking knee it sure feels like Hampshire was bullying that kid.
Why are the academic left such chumps when it comes to politics? Do they even want to be politically effective? Do they have a clue?
If Hampshire were serious, the "obvious" solution would not be to suppress the wigga but to recruit and accept 15 or so Rick Ross hip-hop types — Ross's core fans (the black ones, at any rate) — in each of the next four freshman classes. For all I know the Hampshire admissions people have been doing exactly that already — what do I know about Hampshire these days? — except I believe I know they haven't: even with Hampshire's nontraditional mandate, Rick Ross types aren't being recruited; and no guidance people anywhere in any high school are directing them towards Hampshire; and if the admissions people guaranteed acceptance they couldn't find fifteen who would go, anyway.
(Luc said "wigga," so I'm assuming Rick Ross is more relevant here than, say, backpack, if "backpack" is still a term. But what do I know about backpack these days? Or Rick Ross? According to Wikip, he went to college on a football scholarship at Albany State University in Georgia. Also worked as a corrections officer for 18 months, a fact that Wikip says he tried to suppress. And maybe Ross is passé compared to any hip-hop guy our college kid might be listening to.)]
[EDIT: Of course, the school I work at (ECE through 8th grade) suppresses gang insignia, so maybe Hampshire is doing something similar — okay, that's a gag, ha ha ha, but maybe it isn't. Again, I don't know anything about the actual incident. E.g., it could be "concern about cultural appropriation" functioning as a mask for somewhat different class and cultural conflicts, but I don't know this; and anyway, that's probably too coherent an analysis.]
DON: Discussion of choosing/changing one's sense of class reminds me of a song on the Rave-Ups' expanded reissue, Town and Country: "Class Tramp" starts like a cheerful, Kinksy sneer at Mr. Middle Class Salary Whore, but then the singer takes a look in the mirror, looking like Dad, he's a Class Tramp too. Still cheerful, he doesn't say "hipster," not in '86, but he's got hip tastes, maybe hipper than Dad's, and doing whatever it takes to feed the tweed: he's a high Class Tramp, strutting his stuff.
DON (again): Fairly amazing presentation of new Dave H. collection, preceded by brisk, though sometimes amazed, backstory of controversy:
JOHN WÓJTOWICZ: "Art exists for a world in which people are essentially different from each other, especially from those they are supposed to resemble because of social category or identity group."
Thanks a lot. That's led me to this:
DON (in regard to my June "tribal" post): So far, most struck by this:My concern again is that "tribe" and "tribal identity" are being used as explanations rather than being treated as the phenomena that need to be explained
Which goes w my prev. email response
the more literal way it can be used by political commentators (left and right), which tends to reduce and harden and dismiss——"They're just Different, whattayagonnado.
Also, your comments on how choice can lead to restraint reminds me of Frith writing something to the effect that leisure can become work, though not labor — not a paid job, for inst, but a paid-for pursuit, the anxiety of collecting, leisure with a minimum of pleasure, in some cases documented in some of the more anxious ILM posts (for instance)
But "class" would be problematic as a replacement for "tribe" in gen discourse, because it immediately brings up associations with economic issues, incl. effects of status; when drunk, a Film major once confided to me: "My Daddy ran a garage and your Daddy was white collar; I find myself thinking about that, can't help it sometimes." Even though his Daddy quite probably out-earned my Daddy at least some of the time (running a garage is trickier now; mechanics keep having to learn more about computers). And he was a Film major, so (though this partially explained some murky alibis for anxious and shady behavior) he was presumably not too cowed by practical working class considerations.
Which could def fit w Liz wanting to push past received constraints, 'til she's set free to find a new illusion, in Frankian trajectory, I take it, but still "class" gets used/taken reductively (as does "tribe"): for a while, "It's not race, it's class — raise incomes, create jobs" — ignoring instances of arrested for driving expensive cars while black, for inst.
MARK: more thoughts (based on writing abt adam ant):
the self-identifying template for UK punk and its multi-genre aftermath = d.bowie's line from diamond dogs: "and ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes"
a book i haven't read (but i suppose should) = dick hebdige's SUBCULTURE AND THE MEANING OF STYLE (1979)
my one-sentence review (based on not having read it) is that he is deploying "subculture" to mean what "tribe" does in the bowie line
the splitting — and more to the point the yearning to be seen as part of such a splitting — is the thing that needs explanation: my guess is that hebdige doesn't adequately provide this explanation, since a lot of people read this book in the early 80s and yet no such explanation entered the collective discourse these people were contributing to.
DON: The Film major mention was intended as an example of self-reduction, along w the glib use of "class not race" by neo-etc; also, anyone who said, "Me and my class like to do this" (replacing "tribe") might be taken as inflating status-y awareness/hipness/placement, re social mapping and so on.
MARK: adding (re hebdige) that i did read his book on reggae, which was kind of terrible
LUC: I tried reading both books (still possess Cut 'n' Mix), but my theory dictionary seems to never have arrived from the publisher, so I open a page and the wordlike glyphs just slide down.
DON: "and the yearning to be seen as part of such a splitting": this seems key! Mitosis and mutation rah-rah. I like "subculture," though seems a bit hefty and old school (60s campusy) for vernacular use now — hell I still like "counterculture," or "counter" something—— "my counterlife," we all need one. But I like to use "clique" too, with high school connotation — but do the kids get that nowadays? Can't leave out the kids! Hey kids—? Eh?
MARK: i like claque: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claqu
LUC: It was a paid job! Today we call such people rebloggers.
DON: "my subcult"?
FRANK (upon finding an actual Liz Naylor quotation): Interesting that, at least in this segment of the interview, she's speaking not of having located her tribe, as Mark remembered it (perhaps she says that elsewhere, not streamed), but of needing to go out in the world and find her tribe, so the tribe being foreseen and somewhat conceptualized by her prior to being located. (I wonder if "tribe" and "people" were terms she had originally, or ones she got to later in life.)
I also remember the word "community" somewhere in her clips.
Regarding "needing to go out in the world and find my tribe," there's an interesting analogy to be drawn to my idea — sent it in Notes On Social Class to Dave and Mark sometime in 2011 — that prior to Elvis the overall culture was already somewhat opening up a space for someone like him. And a related question from some followup notes — where did the '60s freaks get their authority? — is conceptualized along the same lines: Freaks (and beatniks etc.) embodied what had been "impulses" and "urges" (scare quotes) that were already incipient prior to them among the socs and the hoods, tendencies both illicit and valorized — as representing deviance and independence, screwing-up and integrity, failure and freedom, the authority coming from the latter term in each pair but accruing to the former as well.**** I'm surmising that for Liz the implicit message (in Mark's words), "Not for the likes of you," when it comes to books and ideas, worked as a proscription to becoming an Oxford don, but in pop the Beatles and freaks and later the glamsters etc. had already breached that proscription and opened up the idea of alternative pathways. And by the time she got to high school (or whatever they call it there*****) the cultural "impulses" and "urges" were hypothesizing a social space that was more "thoughtful" and "realistic" than that occupied by the freaks, some of the freaks themselves hypothesizing a smarter freakdom than the one they were stuck in. So her inkling of something out there matches up with inklings in the broader culture of what should be out there, a space that's getting explored by Roxy Music and NME (and, where available, Village Voice and Creem and Stooges and defunct but feted Velvets) and all that's rushing in afterwards.
MARK: knowing her as i have for 30-odd years the answer would (at best) be "yes-but-no" i think, and she's using the word slightly flippantly anyway (to mean, "it's absurd to imagine such a thing could exist but what else do i call it?")
*Is "tribe" even the right word for tribes? That'll also be briefly taken up in a future post, the potential lumping together of disparate social forms and social groups in one category — not just "tribe," but "Latino" and so on. —"Cultural appropriation," though, isn't my beef with the word "tribal." The word's mainly being used as a metaphor, anyway; the problem is that it's the wrong metaphor. See the June "tribal" post for part one of my beef.
I had this sense somehow that there was this, loads of information out there, there was loads of interesting things in the world, and, you know, I kind of didn't know how to get to it. I think I sort of knew my own world was, felt a bit impoverished... I think there was just this real sense of survival, of needing to kind of go out in the world and find my tribe, find my people. That's easier said than done in Hyde, because it really was, there was one shop that stocked music press.Later in the clip:
"I knew my tribe was something to do with music."
***I am hoping this post will inform that one, the sense that "familial" or "tribal" bonds feel harder to break than do "class" ones, that families and tribes claim more allegiance — even though these aren't actual familial or tribal bonds, we're not as attached or forced into them, and they're continually broken, though without this breakage necessarily helping us to move onward from the world they give us: the social systems tend to hold us even though the group identifications don't.
****E.g. Bob Dylan "She knows there's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all."
*****She mentions "grammar school," which in England is a type of secondary school, whereas in American usage the term refers to elementary school (roughly ages 6 through 11), the term now fading out.