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Dick Hebdige’s work Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Dick Hebdige’s work Subculture: The Meaning of Style has had a great impact within the area of cultural studies as it manages to take the preceding theories of subculture one step further, and to pinpoint the differences between culture and subculture as well as to decipher the “the hidden messages inscribed on the glossy surfaces of style” (Hebdige, 18). Hebdige follows on the tracks of semiology as theorized before him by Saussure and Roland Barthes and tries to read and interpret the signs and the language of the subcultures that emerged in Great Britain after World War II, such as the punks, the mods or the skinheads.
Also, he is inspired to a great extent by Levi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology. What is really significant about Hebdige’s works though is that he applies the purely theoretical frame that had been constructed by the preceding authors directly to the different styles which appeared as forms of subculture. Thus, he tries to interpret the outer signs which were displayed by each of the groups, from the punks to the skinheads, and reveal their social and cultural meaning.
He uses clothing and hair styles, types of music or dancing and so on, as part of the language of the subcultures, in which the actual social meanings are inscribed. Thus, according to Hebdige although the social classes were said to have disappeared after the Second World War, they were actually simply transformed into ideological divisions from the mainstream. The classes thus formed were subcultures, that is, ‘marginal discourses’ which opposed the general tendency of the anonymous culture existing at that point in time:

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“It has become something of a cliché to talk of the period after the Second World War as one of enormous upheaval in which the traditional patterns of life in Britain were swept aside to be replaced by a new, and superficially less class-ridden system […] Nonetheless […]class refused to disappear. The ways in which class was lived, however – the forms in which the experience of class found expression in culture did change dramatically.
The advent of the mass media, changes in the constitution of the family, in the organization of school and work, shifts in the relative status of work and leisure, all served to fragment and polarize the working-class community, producing a series of marginal discourses within the broad confines of class experience. ”(Hebdige, 54) As Hebdige emphasizes, the subcultural styles formed their own rhetoric by means of a certain way of living and of an ostentatious appearance, as a response to the particular cultural, social, political circumstances of the time.
In brief, it can be said that these subcultural styles were a form of protest to the anonymous culture. Although sometimes their rhetoric, as in the case of the punks, was intentionally baffling and consciously aiming at meaninglessness, to the point that it seemed to “work against the reader and to resist any authoritative interpretation,”(Hebdige, 89) it formed nevertheless a coherent symbolic order in itself.
The subcultural groups represent, in Hebdige’s view, responses to the “contrary mythology of class”, that is, to the way in which class was alternatively proclaimed as gone and then reaffirmed by the media: “Rather the different styles and the ideologies which structure and determine them represent negotiated responses to a contradictory mythology of class. In this mythology, ‘the withering away of class’ is paradoxically countered by an undiluted ‘classfulness’, a romantic conception of the traditional whole way of (working-class) life revived twice weekly on television programs like Coronation Street.
The mods and skinheads, then, in their different ways, were ‘handling’ this mythology as much as the exigencies of their material condition. They were learning to live within or without that amorphous body of images and typifications made available in the mass media in which class is alternately overlooked and overstated, denied and reduced to caricature. ”(Hebdige, 55) Thus, Hebdige sees subcultures as homogeneous and coherent forms of rhetoric, which go beyond the merely desire to shock the public opinion.
In fact, as he theorizes, all the parts of the systems of symbols that make up a particular style are homologous, and they can be said to be as coherent as a’ whole way of life’: “In Profane Culture, Willis shows how, contrary to the popular myth which presents subcultures as lawless forms, the internal structure of any particular subculture is characterized by an extreme orderliness: each part is organically related to other parts and it is through the fit between them that the subcultural member makes sense of the world.
For instance, it was the homology between an alternative value system (‘Tune in, turn on, drop out’), hallucinogenic drugs and acid rock which made the hippy culture cohere as a ‘whole way of life’ for individual hippies. ”(Hebdige, 123) As Hebdige remarks the subcultures were actually strong constructs, which were usually meant as a response to a crisis situation, as is the case of the punks at the end of the 1970’s, whose rhetoric mimicked the chaos of the English social and economical life.
The violent and obscene style was in fact a language in itself, in perfect accordance with the way in which swore or spoke: “There was a homological relation between the trashy cut-up clothes and spiky hair, the pogo and amphetamines, the spitting, the vomiting, the format of the fanzines, the insurrectionary poses and the “soulless,” frantically driven music. The punks wore clothes which were the sartorial equivalent of swear words, and they swore as they dressed — with calculated effect, lacing obscenities into record notes and publicity releases, interviews and love songs.
Clothed in chaos, they produced Noise in the calmly orchestrated Crisis of everyday life in the late 1970 s[…]”(Hebdige, 125) Hebdige thus highlights the identity of language and style within the subcultural rhetoric. The punks for instance functioned as a current in which the meanings were not even fixed as such, although the general meaning behind the style was that ‘the forbidden is permitted’, as Hebdige comments: “If we were to write an epitaph for the punk subculture, we could do no better than repeat Poly Styrene’s famous dictum: ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ or somewhat more concisely: the forbidden is permitted, but by the same token, nothing, not even these forbidden signifiers (bondage, safety pins, chains, hair-dye, etc. ) is sacred and fixed. ”(Hebdige, 125)
The subcultures were thus a way of subverting the anonymous, mainstream currents trough a form of stylistic rhetoric. The main discontents with the contemporary world were thus displayed by means of dress or discordant music for example, aiming at a deconstruction of traditional concepts or cultural facts.
The subcultural styles didn’t target necessarily the values of a certain society, as it is usually believed, but rather those notions and cultural patterns that they found as incoherent and contradictory. They were actually an abstract embodiment of the outside chaos, and not a chaotic response to order, or a protest against order. Also, the subcultural streams aimed at emphasizing otherness and difference and their adherents were intentionally posing as aliens to society and wearing masks so as to avoid any categorization or prescribed identity:
“They [the punks] played up their Otherness, ‘happening’ on the world as aliens, inscrutables. Though punk rituals, accents and objects were deliberately used to signify working-classness, the exact origins of individual punks were disguised or symbolically disfigured by the make-up, masks and aliases which seem to have been used, like Breton’s art, as ploys ‘to escape the principle of identity. ’ ”(Hebdige,126) Another very important characteristic of the subcultural movements is, as Hebdige notes, the fact that they strived to confuse the usual divisions of race, gender and chronology by combining them in their style.
The boundaries between the white and black cultures are progressively erased through the borrowings that the white cultures made from the black ones in their style: “[…] it is on the plane of aesthetics: in dress, dance, music; in the whole rhetoric of style, that we find the dialogue between black and white most subtly and comprehensively recorded […]”(Hebdige, 96) The subcultures proceeded to mix up the separate elements of the mainstream culture, attacking thus the idea of identity and opening the way to difference and otherness:
“Behind punk’s favored ‘cut ups’ lay hints of disorder, of breakdown and category confusion: a desire not only to erode racial and gender boundaries but also to confuse chronological sequence by mixing up details from different periods. ”(Hebdige, 128) The important thing to note therefore is that in Hebdige’s theory the subcultures were deviations from the anonymous culture, aiming at decentralizing some of the most rooted concepts and ideas of society, and at establishing a new different order outside the stereotypes of society. All this was done through style, ranging from music to dressing and all the other means of expression.
Style works therefore as a system of signs, as a text that must be read to grasp the meaning behind it. Obviously, Hebdige’s work deals with the subcultures in the modern epoch, after the Second World War. Therefore, there have been attempts to take his study further, so as it may capture the way in which subculture is manifested in postmodernism. Although the main subcultures that Hebdige discusses- the punks, the teddy boys, the mods, the skinheads, the Rasta men and so on, lost their force or even disappeared, some subcultural groups still exist today, although their structure seems to be different from that of the modern subcultures.
The styles in the contemporary world are, to a great extent, the products of postmodernism and therefore imitate its main tenants, its fragmentation and hybridization. There are no longer entirely compact, coherent or well delimited subcultures like those identified by Hebdige, therefore the concepts he proposed remain mostly valid for the historical period he analyzed in his work. His approach is very enlightening for any cultural studies inquiry but it should be modified or continued so as to comprise the contemporary phenomena.

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