Hebdige, Dick

Assigned: Hebdige, Dick. From Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Chapter 6. “Subculture: The Unnatural Break” (2309-16). Also read the editors’ introduction (2305-08).

From Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979)

Chapter 6. Subculture: The Unnatural Break

1. On 2309-10 (“Subcultures represent ‘noise’…”), Dick Hebdige writes that new subcultures produce “noise” as opposed to coherent “sound” (2309) of the sort that a given society can readily understand and accept. How does he initially explain the “profoundly disorienting effects” (2309) that such noise may have on society? According to Hebdige, why are transgressions against linguistic usage and other social codes received as serious threats against order? To what extent is the vital opposition between nature and culture called into question by the activities of subcultures? (2310)

Two Forms of Incorporation

2. On 2310-12 (“‘Has not this society, glutted with…’”), Hebdige asks, “can subcultures always be effectively incorporated and if so, how?” (2311) When a new subculture comes along, how do the journalistic and entertainment media tend to respond to it? What seems to provoke the media, police, and the courts into what Hebdige terms a state of “hysteria” that “fluctuates between dread and fascination” (2311)? Eventually, how is this same style or behavior classified as something mainstream citizens find acceptable, or at least tolerable? (2311-12) What two forms does the “process of recuperation” (2311) take?

The Commodity Form

3. On 2312-13 (“The first has been comprehensively…”), Hebdige addresses “The relationship between the spectacular subculture and the various industries which service and exploit it…” (2312). How does he describe this relationship in terms of its effect on the subculture’s ability to function as what it may originally have been—an edgy, even radical alternative to mainstream culture? What happens, according to Hebdige, to radical subcultures “as soon as the original innovations which signify ‘subculture’ are translated into commodities and made generally available…” (2313)? Do they preserve any of their power to startle and “shock,” or do they become just another boring, stale commodity? Explain.

The Ideological Form

4. On 2313-15 (“The second form of incorporation…”), Hebdige cites the sociologist Stan Cohen regarding the kind of “moral panic” (2313 bottom) that tends to arise when mainstream societies are confronted by radical subcultures. The subculture itself is treated in part as a “folk devil” (2314), but ultimately, it is treated in a more ambiguous way. What “[t]wo basic strategies” (2314), according to Hebdige, are used by mainstream society to confront and manage the threat presented by a radical subculture?

5. On 2315-16 (“Once again, we should avoid…”), why, according to Hebdige, should we “avoid making any absolute distinction between the ideological and commercial ‘manipulations’ of subculture” (2315)? What contradictions and ambiguities does Hebdige highlight regarding the commercial behavior and ideological implications of a movement such as “Punk”? To what extent does such a movement behave, in the framework of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, like a myth that “can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it” (2315; the quote is by Barthes)?

6. General question: In our selection from Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige offers a respectful but somewhat pessimistic examination of subcultural or countercultural phenomena such as the Punk Rock movement of the late 1970s. It seems fairly obvious by now that radical movements and styles are eventually incorporated into the mainstream culture and economy of market societies. In short, “youthful rebellion” sells—it is easy to commodify. Even so, are some commodities of this sort more resistant than others to total reduction to stereotyping and banality? Several decades on from Hebdige’s study, to what extent do you find that earlier subcultures or movements are still known and influential among younger people and people more generally? Just to give one possible example, what do some of the young people you know say about 1960s rock and the “hippies”?

7. General question: In our selection from Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige covers some of the rebellious subcultures that existed in the late 1970s. What can you identify as today’s most prominent and interesting subcultures—ones that have not yet, perhaps, been fully absorbed into mainstream market and symbolic culture? What expectations do you have for them over the next five years or so—will they keep their radical edge, or be co-opted thoroughly by then?

8. General question: One phenomenon that Dick Hebdige covers in Subculture: The Meaning of Style is the inevitable commodification and ideological taming of the styles and attitudes of initially radical subcultures. This generally materialist sort of analysis seems to work well in dealing with the complex field of cultural production. Still, some readers may find claims about the ultimate co-optation and reduction of art and literature to commodity status inadequate to the nature of such sophisticated material. Most people know that their favorite literary works function as commodities and that the authors produced them with that function at least partly in mind. Artists, after all, need to make a living. To what extent do literature and art demonstrate the ability to be “commodities with a kick,” so to speak—that is, to what extent do they keep in reserve a certain power to challenge and influence people’s feelings, beliefs, and ideas, even if they are“for sale”? Oscar Wilde makes his character Vivian in “The Decay of Lying” say, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (see Leitch 766-70; the quote is on pg. 769). What do you think—was Wilde’s Vivian more right than wrong, or more wrong than right? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake