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Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige

The sixteen years since Subculture* was published have seen the remarkable rise of 'cultural studies' as a university teaching subject and the global
spread of the term (sometimes with a prefix: 'Birmingham cultural studies')
as descriptive of a distinctive approach to both cultural sociology and
literary and media analysis. Throughout Dick Hebdige's small (140 pp.)
but rich essay on 'the meaning of style' (originally published in Methuen's
New Accents series, itself an influential venture in the redefinition of disciplines) has been the key cultural studies text. John Fiske may have eventually cornered the market in the popularising (and simplifying) cultural
studies text book; Policing the Crisis may be the definitive study to come
from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies itself (if
only for the wealth and sophistication of its empirical, historical, political
and textual detail); but Subculture is still the book that despite its flaws
(most obviously a complete lack of interest in girls) is likeliest to persuade
both students and staff that this subject is fun.
If there were a cultural studies citation index, in other words, Subculture
would surely have the most entries. It provides the clearest accessible
account of how one tradition of cultural studies (British socio-literary
moralism from Arnold to Williams and Hoggart) was overlaid by another
(continental ideological theory from Marx to Althusser) and then pivoted
smartly round both Gramsci's theory of hegemony and Barthes's concept
of myth. There is still no better brief account of the Birmingham project:
from understanding culture as hegemony to celebrating subculture as the
challenge to hegemony.
There's an irony here nonetheless. Subculture was if nothing else a study
of contemporary culture. The theoretical material takes off from and circles
all around 'the British summer of 1976', the moment of punk and all that. It
is, therefore, important to remember that the same amount of time has
now gone past since then as there was between punk and the rock'n'roll,
Elvis Presley, teenage moment of the mid 1950s. At the time of its first
publication Subculture (like punk) announced itself as something new.
It did refer to the fifties (to teds and delinquency theory and The Uses of
* Mcthuen, 1979,

at least among pop scholars outside the academy (following Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming) that punk itself was always a double narrative: on the one hand. 57) In offering such an analysis Hebdige refers to social institutions and activities. we have an analysis of punk as issuing ’out of nameless housing estates. 26). The skinheads. but such reactions were distinctively proletarian: Its rituals. Hebdige thus follows the traces of previous styles in class-specific terms . It is now generally accepted. if somewhat obliquely. mods and above all skinheads may all have been reactions to Caribbean British culture. slums in the abstract’ (p. Nowadays. criticises conventional . to have such simpZe ideas about youth and youth music ever again (Hebdige thus provided. punk was crucially about class and art. though.’subcultural theory’ is still firmly centred on art and class.teds.though punk clearly did involve a creative interplay of art schools and dole queues .but also ideologically: as an expressive form. I don’t just mean this sociologically . He suggested that the close study of youth subcultures was a means by which ‘we can watch played out on the loaded surfaces of British working class youth cultures a phantom history of race relations since the War‘ (p. language and style provided models for those white youths alienated from the parent culture by the imagined compromises of the post-war years. that is to say. anonymous dole queues. Subculture is a double text: the issues of class and art are approached rather differently. among other things. resolved or at least reduced the tension between an experienced present (the mixed ghetto) and an imaginary past (the classic white slum) by initiating a dialogue which reconstituted each in terms of the other. makes claims about post-war society. So was Subculture. Methodologically speaking. and not the least of his ambitions was to put race at the centre of post-war British experience (one reason why his account of working-class culture is so different from Richard Hoggart’s). Hebdige’s arguments about race have probably been his least influential . Paradoxically. Hebdige’s explicit interest was youth and race. and it is in this latter respect that the debt to Hebdige’s work is most obvious. though. then. about art. about class. people read and teach Subculture as if the Britain it described were still contemporary. we’d heard too much. 45). on the other hand.Used books 121 Literacy) but only as a time of lost innocence: we knew too much. a capsule postwar social history). First. and as reproducing ’the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in ”cut-up” form’ (p. then. (P. 65). It’s like post-punk never happened.

122 Critical Quarterly. and one cannot verify an existential option scientifically . This is sociological theory without sociological method. to put this another way (and in this Hebdige clearly anticipated the most interesting cultural studies analysis to come) was performance of style: I shall be returning again and again to Genet’s major themes: the status and meaning of revolt. where the second text comes into play. it cannot be tested by the standard sociological procedures. but with little real evidence) was to make a new story about youth and race and class utterly convincing. ‘It is highly unlikely that the members of any of the subcultures described in this book would recognise themselves reflected here’ (p. and cites the social effects of the mass media. This equation is no doubt open to dispute. the idea of style as a form of Refusal. as an existential option. ’can be read as a displaced manoeuvre whereby the fear and anxiety produced by limited identification with one black group was transformed into aggression and directed against another black community’ (p. the elevation of crime into art . to put this another way. and I doubt if many pop historians are convinced by his account of punk either (Dave Laing’s One-Chord Wonders is a rather more complex historical and semiotic study). 139). as submerged possibility. for example.131) don’t. as Hebdige readily admits: Much of this book has been based on the assumption that the two positions ‘Negro‘ and ‘white working-class youth’ can be equated. The question this raises is why his readers should see the world the way Hebdige sees it. Subculture begins and ends with Jean Genet. 2. no. as he wryly notes. 37. Though it is undeniably there in the social structure. ’Paki-bashing’. 58). . a move which seemed odder then that it does now. What’s most interesting about Subculture‘s success. my emphasis). After all. And this is. my emphasis) . and Hebdige’s interest in him (followingSartre) is existential rather than sociological. As he writes. like Genet we must seek to recreate the dialectic between action and reaction which renders [the most mundane] objects meaningful. I think. it is there as an immanence. and his achievement (drawing on arguments first worked through in Birmingham and presented in Resistance Through Rituals. .you either see it or you (P. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the idea of style as a coded response to changes affecting the entire community has literally transformed the study of spectacular youth culture’ (p. is that such empirical reservations don’t matter. Genet was not an obvious referent for either British social history or marxist ideological analysis. His concern. the text about art. 80. vol. but by his own admission his arguments are based not on empirical data as such but on cultural ’readings’. (p. 2 youth theory.

that despite his continuing deployment of class terms. given this concern. It is not surprising. in the process by which people transform themselves. the judiciary (i. He may spend some time (and ingenuity) tracing the ‘homologies’ between symbols and social situation. and concentrates attention on the objects-in-themselves. the other (i. etc. means the translation of individual style into social convention and. the media. Erving Goffman’s work is relegated to a rather dismissive footnote). in short. that Subculfure makes so little reference to ’symbolic interactionism’. (P. he suggests.Used books 123 From a sociologist’s perspective it is odd. the ideological form). whether in its European or American forms (Alfred Schutz is not mentioned. Hebdige wants to celebrate subcultural style as a form of personal communication.e. expressive. between class and art. This is the reason why he finds punks much more interesting than previous youth stylists like teds. ‘intentional communication’ can be opposed to ‘normal’ dress conventions: it ’is of a different order. In fashion terms. the teds’) is static. but more important. Hebdige is attracted by subcultural stylists more as artists than as social activists.e. it gives itself to be read’ (p.e. transitive and concentrates attention on the act of transformation performed upon the object. that is to say. the commodity form). This in part reflects the study‘s origin in a literature rather than sociology department. (P. but his real fascination is with signs before they become codified. weren’t limited by subcultural sociology: We can express the difference between the two practices in the following formula: one (i. in other words.124) Hebdige. Punks. a central Birmingham concept. . is the sense that for all Hebdige’s rhetorical gestures at anthropological and semiological accounts of meaning-making (L6vi-Strauss. a loaded choice. 101). It directs attention to itself.e. music. It is a way of being ’different’. It stands apart . in other words. I think.) into mass-produced objects (i. in these terms: 1. in the end. 2. and he is as dismissive as any mass-cultural critic (or reader of New Musical Express) of the process in which ‘street’ creativity becomes media commodity.a visible construction.Eco) he is primarily interested in the individual experience of creativity. is more interested in the act or moment of creativity (or ’refusal‘) itself than in its social consequences. 94) Recuperation. He describes the ’recuperation’ of subculture. the punks’) is kinetic. the conversion of subcultural signs (dress. the ’labelling’ and re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups the police.

124 Critical Quarterly. which is one reason why the book has had such a strong and unusual appeal outside the academy too. well. vol. 37. whether among journalists or musicians. 2 And here lies the continuing appeal of Subculture. there are lots of people out there who are happy to be told that playing with signs is. THE ARTFUL DODGER . groovy. Whether in design studios or advertising agencies. whether in cultural studies classrooms or staff rooms. It is really a book about stylists for stylists. no.