Studies & Hebdige’s
Hebdige’s 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style is now considered a classic in several disciplines. Associated with Cultural Studies and the Birmingham school, Hebdige’s book has been widely read by popular music scholars, all manner of social scientists, and fans of punk music and style alike. His work is basically a study of working class youth in 1970s England juxtaposed to their parents’ generation as well as immigrants from former or soon-to-be independent colonies, in particular Jamaicans. Hebdige’s work was a result of the need to understand a growing number of visible subcultures in Britain. In the following pages, I shall provide a summary of the work’s main points and proceed to highlight its importance of as well as its shortcomings. I begin with an initial examination of the academic, vocational and ideological currents that constitute Cultural Studies.
One cannot fully grasp Hebdige’s ideas and arguments without at least a basic understanding of the schools of thought in which he was educated. Cultural Studies, also known as the Birmingham School, was conceived in a Britain emerging from the industrial revolution. The School drew on a combination of anthropology, history, literary criticism and theory, Marxism, media studies, semiotics, structuralism, as well as sociology, especially the Chicago and Frankfurt Schools (Mattelart & Neveu, 9). The Chicago School had its beginnings in the creation of the first department of sociology in the U.S. at the University of Chicago in 1892. The scholars associated with the department were primarily interested in urban social behavior, deviance, and subcultures. Using the city of Chicago as their laboratory, they developed theories that drew upon participant-observation and took both individuals and social groups to be products of both their natural and social environments. The school came to dominate U.S. sociological thought until WWII. The Frankfurt School "offered a refuge for the leftist intellectuals during the years prior to Hitler’s takeover of Germany. It was the home of critical theory, a complex blend of sophisticated Marxist thought, philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary speculation, and social research" (Barfield, 206). Scholars associated with the school included Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. The Frankfurt School reacted against positivistic scientific approaches by drawing upon Marx’s views of materialism and upon the critical philosophy of Kant.
The work of several scholars with common interests drawing from the particular combination of disciplines mentioned above soon crystalized into what would become Cultural Studies. The New Left Review, begun in 1960, became the forum in which their ideas were most often articulated. Then, in 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was founded at the University of Birmingham. The Centre’s areas of research included popular cultures, media studies, urban subcultures, and ethnic and sexual identity. The main goal of the Centre was to study cultural institutions and their interaction with and interrelation to society and social change (Mattelart & Neveu, 5). Thus the study of subcultures, ethnic groups and the question of race was intrinsic to Cultural Studies, especially in the 1970s (i.e. Stuart Hall’s 1976 Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain, to which Hebdige’s often refers in Subculture). Their research was done mostly on western capitalist industrial societies in Western Europe and North America, especially the U.S.
Postwar England had become a hotbed of immigration from former colonies. A growing South Asian and West Indian minority was making its presence felt, especially in urban centers. It was the general policy of the British government that individuals born in a colony had the option of immigrating to Britain. Even after many colonies had been given independence, those who were born in a country while it had colonial status were given this option to immigrate. However, in practice, this presented no potential demographic problem to England as many colonial citizens were simply too economically disadvantaged to consider a move to such a faraway place as the British Isles. On the other hand, beginning around the period of Indian and Pakistani independence in 1949 and throughout the sixties, British industry began growing steadily and this required an increased work force. By the time of Jamaican and Trini (this is an emic adjective for Trinidad) independence in 1962, Britain was in need of labor. The promise of jobs became the incentive for many Pakistanis and Jamaicans to immigrate. This brought many changes to urban English society for various reasons, not the least of which the collective fear, among the mostly homogeneous citizenry, of an incoming workforce that was markedly different culturally from themselves.
It was also becoming increasingly difficult for the existing English working class to subscribe to traditional colonial notions of supremacy over formerly colonized peoples because these newly naturalized migrant workers were becoming an intrinsic part of the British work force. However, paradoxically existing alongside this ethnocentrism and racism, was a simultaneous fascination among large sections of the English population for blacks and for West Indians in which an exoticization of the Other had been ascribed in the early days of colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean (Erlmann, 108; Mattelart & Neveu, 13). Indeed, it is one reviewer’s opinion that "what makes [Hebdige’s] study important is the way it highlights the increasing vulnerability of the ‘West’ to ideological currents once easily dismissed as distant illusions belonging to foreign lands and peoples" (Bilby, 211). In short,
When Black Jamaicans displayed their distinctive music, clothing, gestures, etc on the street and thereby took possession of a social space, white working-class youth were implicitly challenged to forge an equally "dense" style of their own. The mediations of this style were complex, because it embodied a fourfold signification: similarities and differences between white youth and blacks, similarities and differences between youth and their parents (Delaney, 182).
At the same time, the British economy was showing signs of decline in the 1960s after having been successfully reformed by the Labour party after WWII. Rising unemployment also contributed to conflicts based on class and race. Several Cultural Studies scholars such as Hebdige and Hall recognized a growing need to study these phenomena in an objective manner. In Subculture, Hebdige approaches youth subcultures as authentic bastions of counter-hegemony and resistance to the social injustices of the working class world. Delaney interprets these youth subcultures "as a vehicle of collective self-defense for working-class teenagers" (Delaney, 182). Hebdige thus considers style to be the most semiotically impregnated domain of subcultures and the arena, par excellence, for the negotiation of identity and power relations.
Early Cultural Studies scholars had specific agendas. Part of their ideological, methodological, and theoretical motivation came from outside academia, that is, "a tradition in adult education and vocational training whose basic philosophy was egalitarian" (Tagg & Clarida, 89). Indeed beginning in 1946, part of the labor party’s social agenda was to balance material wealth among, and even eliminate, classes in Britain. For the underlying motivation and philosophy of, what Tagg calls, "cult stud[s]" (Cultural Studies scholars), it is worth quoting him at length here:
To put it simply, if material wealth should be fairly distributed then so should access to culture and education. […] The original democratic educational agenda of cultural studies [was] to help empower the majority to understand, criticize and change their own conditions […] by making the cultural treasures and aesthetic values of the privileged classes available to the populace at large; [it also involved putting] the culture of the majority under the academic spotlight by documenting its everyday practices and by focusing discussion of its functions on matters of survival, subversion, resistance and opposition. (Tagg & Clarida, 89-93)
Before a closer look at Cultural Studies and how Hebdige’s book typifies this discipline, as well as a critique of both book and discipline, I present the following summary.
The book is divided into two parts. The first includes chapters 1 through 4 and is devoted to his particular use of terms such as culture, Cultural Studies, ideology, hegemony, subculture, and style. The first part of the book also includes an historical summary or chronological timeline of the postwar subcultural and musical styles of hipsters, beats (beatniks), teds (teddy boys), mods, skinheads, rude boys, glam and glitter rockers (especially David Bowie and Roxy Music fans), punks, and dreads (Rastafarians). The second part of the book is a more in-depth examination of different facets of style, especially punk subculture. In chapter 5, the author examines working-class subculture as resistance and sources of style. In the following chapter, it’s the commodification, defusion, and diffusion of style by the media that is explored. The rest of the book Hebdige devotes to the concept of "style as". That is to say, he engages into an inquiry into style as intentional communication, bricolage, confrontation, homology (as conceived by Lévi-Strauss), and art. He concludes the entire endeavor by attempting to redefine the concept of subculture according to the information he has presented.
Hebdige introduces his work by citing Jean Genet, a French author who was motivated by his experience in prison. Writing in the mid- to late sixties, Genet explored "the status and meaning of revolt, the idea of style as a form of Refusal, [and] the elevation of crime into art." (Hebdige, 2). Hebdige believes that Genet’s insights and explorations as a criminal are particularly relevant to subcultures, especially punk. Through a metaphorical substitution, Hebdige equates Genet’s crimes (themselves a revolt against norms, a refusal of the status quo) with punks’ "crime" of revolt against and refusal of the socio-economic conditions they lived in. From the point of view of the dominant society in 1970s England, such breaking of norms was considered socially deviant, a social crime of sorts. And just like Genet, according to Hebdige, this "crime" of refusal and revolt was committed through style (both material and musical in the case of punks) as a weapon of choice, thereby elevating crime into art (Helb, see bibliography).
Realizing that subculture cannot be understood without a clear conception of culture, Hebdige demarcates the two basic definitions of culture in chapter 1. One definition, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, is equated with cultivation, refinement and a standard of excellence. The other notion of culture is more generally based on it being a "whole way of life". Following T.S. Eliot and Barthes, Hebdige subscribes to the more anthropologically-oriented "notion of culture [as extending] beyond the library, the opera-house and the theatre to encompass the whole of everyday life" permeated with its ideologies and mediations of power (Hebdige, 9). He also spends a few pages discussing Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. For Hebdige, subcultures represent a challenge to hegemony not through direct means, but rather "obliquely" through style. He proceeds to write the basic thesis underlying his study of subculture and style:
Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus. Our task becomes […] to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surfaces of style, to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to resolve or conceal (Hebdige, 18).
The rest of the first part is an historical summary of subcultural styles culminating with an analysis of punk style, to which Hebdige devotes the second part of his book.
The chapters 5 through 9 that constitute the second part are devoted to a more in-depth examination of different facets of style, especially punk subculture. Thus, chapter 5 is a study of working-class subculture as resistance. It also includes a closer look at the raw materials used as sources of style (Hebdige, 84). In chapter 6, Hebdige introduces his notion of the way subcultures evolve. According to him, subcultures form out of their replacement of one or several previous subcultures which disappear through a process which includes commodification by the establishment and media and eventual assimilation into the larger mainstream culture. This process is accomplished through a combination of "the conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass-produced objects (i.e. the commodity form)", and "the ‘labeling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary (i.e. the ideological form)" (Hebdige, 94). Finally, chapters 7 through 9 are an exploration of the semiotic potential of style by examining it as art, a bricolage of communication and confrontation.
Hebdige’s pioneering work in subcultures was without a doubt sorely needed at the time and place of its writing after such an influx of peoples from former colonies immigrated to Britain. Immigration from Jamaica and Trinidad, for example, resulted in major demographic shifts from the West Indies to England in the fifties and well into the sixties even after these countries had gained independence in 1962. It should be pointed out that, prior to work done by Hebdige and others such as Hall, subculture had been defined as "a set of people with distinct behavior and beliefs within a larger culture" (http://www.jahsonic.com/Subculture.html). One of Hebdige’s major contributions was to demonstrate that, far from being indecipherable foreign entities, subcultures were actually very similar to the parent or dominant cultures of which they were part, by virtue of the fact subcultures were indeed a reworking of the larger cultures’ styles and values (Hebdige, 76). By reconfiguring existing styles and values, youth subcultures in 1970s Britain for example, resisted worsening socio-economic conditions by using these appropriated styles and values against their parents’ generation and the parent culture of which they were part. In other words, "subcultures cobble together (or hybridize) styles out of the images and material culture available to them in the effort to construct identities which will confer on them ‘relative autonomy’ within a social order fractured by class, generational differences, work etc…" (During, 441). Simply put, subcultures fight fire with fire. Other useful features of Hebdige’s study include his historical summary of postwar styles, fads, and fashions in Britain. As well, his assessment that expressive forms such as style are semiotically permeated with a plethora of cultural information are now generally accepted as a truism.
However, Hebdige’s monograph has several shortcomings. The first of these is that the title of the book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, suggests a certain breadth of information to be presented in the book and so sets up a certain expectation on the part of the reader. Indeed, there is nothing to explicitly negate this expectation throughout the first part of the book. However, by the second part, one realizes that Hebdige deals specifically with postwar youth-oriented subcultural styles within the confines of England. Specifically, punk style as it occured in the mid- to late-seventies is given the lion’s share of attention. At first glance, both the title and the school from which it was produced (Birmingham Cultural Studies) would seem to imply a cross-cultural dimension but such is not the case in Hebdige’s book. Needless to say, a different title might have avoided this.
Some critiques of Hebdige’s study have also been articulated in Mattelart & Neveu. According to them, the studies of Hebdige and other Cultural Studies scholars treat subcultures as homogeneous entities in a fixed temporal and geographical framework (Mattelart & Neveu, 25). This fixed view of culture can be detrimental because it is a misrepresentation of the dynamic processes of change inherent to any culture or subculture. Secondly, Hebdige implies that subcultures eventually and effectively die of natural causes through their commodification by the media and consequent incorporation into mainstream culture (Ibid). This structural approach is indeed very rigid and does not acknowledge the complex nature of actual cultural processes. It implies a negation of agency that contradicts Hebdige’s view of resistance to hegemony.
A second problematic issue revolves around the dialectic between Hebdige’s view of black and white culture. In his study, Hebdige states that "at the heart of punk subculture, […] lies [a] frozen dialectic between black and white cultures" (Hebdige, 69-70). Later, he affirms that
The subcultures introduced in the previous sections have till now been described as a series of mediated responses to the presence in Britain of a sizeable black community. As we have seen, the proximity of the two positions – white working-class youth and Negro – invites identification and even when this identity is repressed or openly resisted, black cultural forms (e.g. music) continue to exercise a major determining influence over the development of each subcultural style (Hebdige, 73)
Finally in the last chapter he mentions that "much of this book has been based on the assumption that the two positions ‘Negro’ and ‘white working-class youth’ can be equated" (Hebdige, 131). He also makes passing reference specifically to short stints of social and musical collaboration amongst black and white working-class youths (Hebdige, 58). Historically, black and white collaborations in music have been frequent throughout most of the twentieth century, especially in music. An example occurring after Hebdige had written his book was the so-called "2-tone" sound of late seventies and early eighties "third wave ska" movement. But while he uses the significant black and West Indian population as a point of departure and acknowledges it as a major contributor to postwar subcultural style, his study is surprisingly one-sided. This is not only because he focuses predominantly on punk subculture and style, but because his work lacks any comparable analysis of the blacks and West Indians to which these subcultures and styles are a response. In this sense, it is as though he is perpetuating a colonial mentality that continues to dismiss "ideological currents once easily dismissed as distant illusions belonging to foreign lands and peoples" (Bilby, 211) by simply sweeping West Indians under the rug so to speak.
According to Hebdige, subcultures are actually a reworking and reconfiguration of their parent cultures. In addition, his all-too-brief references to black and West Indian cultures seem to suggest that he considers these cultures to be transplanted parent cultures within British society. If this is so, then Hebdige has completely forgone any exploration of the punk subculture’s "parental" black/West Indian sources. This misrepresentation begs the question of whether ethnic groups or minorities fit into Hebdige’s notion of what constitutes either a parent culture or subculture. His almost complete omission of women or gay/lesbian issues further narrows the potential and usefulness of his analyses.
Another potential obstacle in Hebdige’s work lies in the fact that readers must have knowledge of concepts put forth by a series of authors in order to effectively grasp his arguments. Some of these, Jean Genet and T.S. Eliot for example, are literary figures. Gramsci was a political scientist and sociologist with revolutionary leanings who developed the concept of hegemony. Lévi-Strauss was also a sociologist who also pioneered structural anthropology and developed the concept of homology. Barthes was a social and literary critic. Given the fact that Cultural Studies authors drew from many different sources, it not surprising that the reader should be familiar with the work of these figures and such a vast array disciplines. I have mentioned these already (anthropology, history, literary criticism and theory, Marxism, media studies, semiotics, structuralism, as well as sociology, the Chicago and Frankfurt schools). The plethora of works in which the reader must be well-versed is not my complaint as such. In fact, I welcome the educational opportunity this provides. My quarrel with cult studs lies within what I believe to be a larger context of academic double standards and is part of a more general critique of Cultural Studies that I would like to discuss.
My critique is actually twofold and parallels some issues discussed by Tagg & Clarida: Hebdige’s study as well as many others that fall under the Cultural Studies rubric typically engage in an overabundance of "metacontextual discourse" (Tagg & Clarida, 83), while completely omitting any discussion or treatment of music as text. When music is referenced at all, it is done so only in passing. There is a prioritization among cult studs of context over music as text. Music is treated as a given. According to the author, music seems to be something that needs no examination because of its omnipresence in society. There also seems to be the intrinsic assumption that the workings of music are so simple and self-evident that it requires no attention. It suggests that Hebdige and cult studs in general unconsciously consider music to be devoid of any interpretive or semiotic potential. An examination of four articles published in the journal Cultural Studies further demonstrates cult studs’ attitude toward music. Some titles include: "Funk Music as Genre: Black Aesthetics, Apocalyptic Thinking and Urban Protest in Post-1965 African-American Pop", "Babylon’s ‘Natural Mystic’: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism", "Globalization and Trinidad Carnival: Diaspora, Hybridity and Identity in Global Culture", and "’Becoming Cajun’". Although significant to our understanding of paramusical elements and contexts, these articles are devoid of any analysis and discussion of the actual music intrinsic to the subjects that are examined. Anthropologists of music, ethnomusicologists, popular music scholars, and other musicologists have repeatedly demonstrated that any given musical excerpt contains an abundance of cultural and semiotic information. It is thus surprising and disappointing that an examination of subcultural styles and expressive forms should devote so little effort in the analysis of the music that inevitably permeates all aspects of these very styles, forms and subcultures.
From a musicological point of view, even a superficial examination of any musical excerpt suggests several avenues of inquiry intrinsic to punk music and its 2-tone cousin. It’s indeed a shame that neither Hebdige nor most cult studs explore these extremely rich musical sources. To be sure, cult studs’ avoidance of analyses and discussions of music as text have precedence. The political and social circumstances under which both Cultural Studies and popular music studies came to be disciplines, as well as the lack and quality of relevant literature on musics of the populace in existence prior to 1980, are important factors (Tagg & Clarida, 80-3). The absolutist and elitist ideologies, the "academic logocentrism and scopocentrism" endemic to our educational system, and "the largely unchallenged notion that music belongs to the world of art or entertainment, not to the realm of ‘real’ knowledge" (Tagg & Clarida, 83) are paramount. But this does not forgive the "lack of reciprocity" that the omission of music implies (Ibid).
This brings me back to my comments regarding the plethora of literature and concepts one must readily be able to grasp while reading Cultural Studies. "To put it simply, while we musos must be familiar with Bourdieu and ‘embeddedness’ in order to communicate with cult-stud colleagues, very few of the latter make the effort to talk to us musos in terms of presets or pentatonicism" (Ibid). Almost predictably, Cultural Studies have suffered an identity crisis of sorts in recent years. Tagg & Clarida write that if Cultural Studies
had to accommodate an expanding range of topics and approaches covered by an increasing number of scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds who identified different aspects of its theory as potential ways of understanding different aspects of contemporary mass culture, then what on earth was cultural studies? How could it identify itself and how could its followers identify with it ? It does not seem that cultural studies as an academic institution developed any explicit strategy for solving the problem but rather that its acolytes, perhaps through fear of losing a valued sense of intellectual community, felt obliged to find levels of discourse that could, at least theoretically, be seen to unite a quite disparate range of ideas under the same umbrella. Thus, for example, texts published in the late eighties and early nineties by popular music scholars of the cultural studies persuasion tended to include disproportionate amounts of metatheory. All too often those texts read more like a mantra of intellectually canonic terms and personalities to which fellow acolytes could relate than honest attempts to demystify the complexity of music’s meanings and uses in society (Tagg & Clarida, 88).
For all his insightful and pioneering observations on punk and postwar subcultures in Britain, styles and their meanings, and paramusical contexts, Hebdige’s work has some significant limitations. Some of these limitations can be justified given the historical circumstances revolving around the institutionalization of Cultural Studies. Since 1979 however, Subcultures has become a widely read classic in several disciplines, most notably popular music studies. The reader must be advised however, that some of the approaches and information presented (or lack thereof!) must be taken with a grain of salt and contextualized historically.
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Nurse, Keith. "Globalization and Trinidad Carnival: Diaspora, Hybridity and Identity in Global Culture", Cultural Studies, 13(4): 661-90, 1999, London: Routledge.
Stephens, Michelle A. "Babylon’s ‘Natural Mystic’: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism", Cultural Studies, 12(2): 139-67, 1998, London: Routlegde.
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Tagg, Philip & Bob Clarida. Ten Little Tunes, 2003, New York: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press, Inc.