Friday, December 10, 2010

Dick Hebdige: Subculture: The Meaning of Style – book summary

Dick hebdige's exploration of the punk subculture in his "Subculture: The Meaning of Style" has long been regarded as only of the classic and important milestones in the study of subcultures.

A very short summary of the development of a subculture according to Hebdige goes as follows:
Members of the working-class encounter daily hardships and alienation from the ruling hegemony (with Althusser's interpolation and Marx's class consciousness as the theoretical framework here). Younger generations are reluctant to suffer what their parents go through without protest. These youngsters develop distinct styles and practices with manifest their separate identity, condition and subversion. They encounter young black of Caribbean origin which have a much more historically grounded and formed reason for protest and adopt some of their feature in order to form "white ethnicity'. The media discovers the subculture (and thus essentially baptizing it) with a reaction that is typically moral panic.  The subculture expands while in the process losing its rebellious edge either by turning into another commercial consumer product or by the media humanistically exotisizing its members, rendering them as harmless "clowns", and now the mainstream hegemony can again return to its peaceful unthreatened state.

A more detailed summary of Hebdige's "Culture: The Meaning of Style" will account for his opening discussions and cultural studies oriented definitions of culture, reliance on Roland Barthes semiotic thoughts on myths and signs, ideology from Marx to Volosinov and of course Althusser and finally hegemony as introduced by Gramsci.

In chapter 2 of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" Hebdige briefly discusses the emergence of punk culture in the mid 70's as a descendant of a linage of subcultures including the Teddy-boys, Modes, Rockers, Skin-heads etc. that circulated in the British working-class since the 50's. In chapter 3 of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" Hebdige takes special attention to the origins of Reggae and Rastafarian subcultures and especially its use of both music and style as a means of addressing and revolting against the African displaced and submissioned state. The immigration of Caribbean blacks to the UK has placed them in adjacent geographical and social positions with the British working class and a sort of limited bond began to emerge.

 Chapter 4 in "Culture: The Meaning of Style"  accounts for the nature of subcultures which preceded punk such as the Hippies and Beatniks who in a way idolized the black deprived condition and its rebel through music in the 40's and 50's. The same thing applied to the British Modes and even the Skin-Heads that in spite of their nationalistic and at times xenophobic rhetoric where nevertheless, so Hebdige argues, deeply influenced by the Reggae subculture. The next phase was that of Glam and Glitter Rock that went from engaging with the experience of young working and middle class youth to avoiding it by appealing to an aesthetics of avoiding the "real world" and escaping its different issues.

Punk was in a sense a return to politics which used the Rastafarian concept of 'dread' as inspiration. As Hebdige puts it, punk was a partial translation of black ethnicity, that is, white ethnicity which lacked the teleological salvationist aspirations and remained with a deep despair on account of England having "no future".

Part two ("reading") of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" by Dick Hebdige begins with a discussion of the role of subculture. Here Hebdige criticizes some earlier accounts of subcultures which lacked in his opinion the inclusion of the broader social, political and economical aspects of these phenomena.
Punk in Hebdige's eyes was an attack on conventional meanings which was in a sense a parody on moral panic which was made to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For this reason, the media plays an important role in essentially creating the subculture by unfavorably (and enthusiastically) addressing it.

Punk was a 'semantic disturbance" which violated conventional codes and meanings that served society in making sense of the world. Indeed, punk in many ways resisted any attempts to try and make "sense" out of it. However, Hebdige note two way of assimilation which diffuses punk's subversive potential, by turning it into a consumer product and by ideologically relabeling it as natural or otherwise exotic and in any case as meaningless and therefore harmless. 

The summary of the remaining chapters 7-10 of Hebdige's "Culture: The Meaning of Style" will be published here.    

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