“Subculture – the Meaning of Style,” by Dick Hebdige, 1979
Most people are vaguely aware that sub-cultures exist in many countries, and that they pose somewhat subversive issues to the main-stream culture – whatever that may be. Hebdige, a British cultural studies intellectual influenced by Marxism, concentrates in this seminal book on UK sub-cultures like the Teddy Boys, Rastas, mods and punks as examples of how ‘style’ issues become translated into a certain political attitude. “The Personal Is the Political” is an old slogan, but as the majority wake up to how politics infects everything, it has become pertinent again.
Hebdige ignores hippies in his analysis, but of course hippies were the classic and even world-wide phenomenon of an oppositional sub-culture within developed capitalist societies. Bikers, queer culture, rabid Christian cults, survivalists – and plenty of others – all exist at certain levels in the U.S. and can be both conservative or liberal. Hebdige concentrates on working-class sub-cultures in the U.K. and their social meanings – many times connected to music and clothes. His touchstones are Roland Barthes “Mythologies,’ Antonio Gramsci’s idea of ‘hegemony’ and gay French novelist Jean Genet’s writings from prison. ‘Culture’ as defined here means the whole range of social being, not just ‘high culture.’ Hebdige ultimately gets himself and the reader tied in verbal intellectual knots as he attempts to understand these subcultures through post-modernist theory, but ultimately returns to his Birmingham-school Marxism.
Ideology operates as ‘common sense’ in most societies. Hebdige partly uses semiotics to translate the social impact of hairstyles, or even the architectural layout of a college campus, to decipher unsaid meanings. Every sub-culture has an internally consistent logic that covers many aspects of life. He first focuses on the role of West Indian / Caribbean black culture, which impacted the white working class in England, especially the youth. White punks adopted reggae for instance, showing that ‘identity’ can transfer across ethnicities. As we know from Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool,” nearly any cultural rebellion can be commodified by capital. For instance, punk fashion found its way onto the high-fashion runways through people like Jean Paul Gaultier. In a way, the dominant culture has a vampiric relation to sub-cultures, borrowing bits of their vitality for its own commercial and artistic uses. But this process is never immediate or complete.
1976 in Britain saw that hot summer explode into riots and punk. Hebdon looks at the development of many music forms in this period which paralleled the growth of sub-cultures – northern soul, punk, reggae, ska – and how ‘blackness’ became the ultimate subterranean identity, which white youth either embraced or rejected in a dialectical process. This also happened in the U.S. beginning with hipsters and beatniks back in the 1950s. Teds and skinheads rejected black culture, while mods and punks embraced parts of it. Rock Against Racism grew out of this fusion. The glam and glitter rockers – Bowie led!- actually are identified by Hebdon as those who moved the the focus from class and politics to sexuality and identity. Bowie represented a more middle-class ‘sub-culture.'
Hebdon points out that sub-cultures are always historically specific – and not just based on some generalization like ‘youth.’ Many of these working-class subcultures were responses to the economics of England after WWII, and the severe changes in working-class life. The world of the ‘home, pub and working-mans club’ was disappearing in the face of austerity and the cultural politics of the bourgeois media. Punk was the primary ‘spectacle’ that arose in response to the degeneration of working-class life, and Hebdon digs into it deeply. Even language, as we know, is part of a sub-culture, and punk had its own verbalisms, including much swearing. Hebdon thinks that punk ultimately had elements of nihilism, not just rebellion. Shock became the point of some; punk became modern Dada. Because of this, the hegemonic cultural system tried to turn punk into a clown show, which is one way sub-cultures can be undermined by the dominant culture. To this day, punk still exists - just visit the crusties in Kensington Street in Toronto.
Jean Genet actually wrote an introduction to “Soledad Brother,” a book of letters by George Jackson, a Black Panther murdered by the state back in the 1960s. This odd pairing actually implies that parts of black culture in the U.S. are also part of a very large ‘sub-culture’ subversive to corporate culture or capitalist ‘normality,’ just as gay culture once was. Latino culture represents another strain. This is an odd thought to have. But as someone who has been a hippie, a motorcylist and a leftist – three subcultures in the U.S. - many of us belong to something out of the mainstream. Ethnicities form massive sub-cultures and this point is often ignored. Hebon’s point about West Indians in the U.K. is also relevant to the U.S. black, native and Latino populations. The former was the basis, at one time, for the proposal for a ‘black nation’ in the ‘black belt’ across the South – a black belt which no longer really exists geographically, but still exists culturally.
Other books on "Chavs," British motorcycling gangs and British soccer 'hooligans,' reviewed below. Use blog search box, upper left.
June 25, 2017