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Dick Hebdige. The Function of Subculture

Dick Hebdige. The Function of Subculture
Submitted by Steve Harjula and Valentina Miosuro

A subculture emerges from the culture at large; the ideological, economic, and cultural factors that bear
down on the parent culture are represented in the subculture, cobbled together as a hybridized style.

This is an essay taken from Hebdige’s 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Althusser, Gramsci and Barthes are influential in his writing about the subcultures of skinheads, teddies, punks, bowies (to name a few) in Britain. He proposed that subcultures form as the result of communal and symbolic engagements with the wider culture, a revolutionary idea at the time (subcultures were previously considered deviant).

Hebdige’s subculture examples are taken from his and others ethnographic research. These powerful observations serve as examples in discussing the theory of subculture. The outline will not reference them, only the theoretical points he makes. If you have time read the article, the stories help to understand it.

Youth culture is first described by Cohen as having a class system. Till then, youth were considered one culture unto themselves. The youth subcultures express the latent values that are withheld by their parent culture, but simultaneously the subculture strives to form their own autonomy. The subcultures create imaginary relations that identify them with another culture while the rituals that bind them are influenced by the same values as their parents. This doesn’t mean they mimic their parents actions. The subculture’s members each experience the world differently, their style it not able to be linked back to their parents directly. Hebdige uses Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony to explain that stye is a symbolic form of resistance, or a symptom to the generally held decent in post war Britain.

Hebdige describes the Teddy boys of the 50’s and then 70’s to make the point of specificity (from Gramsci), each subculture occupies a specific moment that affects their particular response to a set of circumstances. In the example of the Teddy boys, their style was similar but the different historic specificities affected what they stood for.

Because subculture is a representation of the social totality it makes sense that media representation of the parent culture affects the subculture as well. Sitting outside the mainstream, subcultures deny and accept the media messages, in a way that, their behavior and style represents a spectacle of the parent cultures withheld values, something the parent culture can react to. These ideas are easily understood because of Hebdige’s observed evidence.

Key Words
youth culture

{Valentina} In the making sense of what subcultures are and how they come to be, Hebdige presents the concepts of conjuncture and specificity that he believes are “indispensable to a study of subcultural study.” Conjuncture as combination of circumstances around a group. Understanding of such context is important as subcultures are symptoms of the conditions of their environment. Making sure to be specific in the description and study of these environments and symptoms. Accepting the challenging complexity of the individual, what he/she brings and how he/she responds. Conjecture and specificity can be seen as tools one can adopt when dealing with the understanding of a subculture. If we were to take a look at the Teddy Boy subculture without these two frames in mind, we might end up only studying the surface and miss the complexities and contradictions within a subculture. We might generalize and dilute its qualities, or miss the subculture group at all.

{Steve} The culture depends on its canary in the mine shaft, spectacle, and symptom of reality that it understands through the subcultures image. But it is not for us to know along with the culture what its reality is. This would make no sense; what if Valentina or I saw the canary dye, we were not in the mine. Why would we even care? The subculture is a spectacle; The social relations as image come to bare, the history that necessitates men to shave their heads. But are still looking in? The culture finally cries out its symptom, it tells us what is wrong, how it feels. And still all we should do is listen. The subculture is that which embodies the symptom, its style is an expression of the cultures values. We realize that it is not our place to understand from outside, for what if we were not here at this moment to decode the symptom, to understand what a skinhead means? It is not for us to know, the symptom’s addressee is not another (our) culture, it is its own. The subculture is like an unsent letter, the only letter that arrives fully at its destination. “The preservation of the unsent letter is its arresting feature. Neither the writing nor the sending is remarkable (we often make drafts of letters and discard them), but the gesture of keeping the message when we have no intention of sending it. By saving the letter, we are in some sense ‘sending’ it after all. We are not relinquishing our idea or dismissing it as foolish or unworthy (as we do when we tear up a letter); on the contrary, we are giving it an extra vote of confidence. We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we ‘send’ it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading.” —Janet Maclcom

{Valentina} “the media not only provide groups with substantive images of other groups, they also relay back to working class people a “picture” of their own lives which is “contained” or “framed” by the ideological discourses which surround and situate it.” To follow up on what Steve’s reply, how are these spectacles communicated? How do we find out that the canary is dead? Whether we were there or not, mass media influences the way in which we understand other groups and classes, along with bringing to us images that represent the social totality of all these groups. (thank you S. Hall)

Can the media provide us with images that represent totality? No. Not without leaving details out. Mass Media collapses, stretches and dilutes. Apparent affinities become reason for grouping and forever be dealt with. How does mass media represent International Students that attend U.S. universities? No matter what specific country they are from, they seem to always be represented by a male, from an Asian country (never specified, Asia is then collapsed to what “looks” Asian) or India. Now, this international
guy is most likely always around others just like him and if you tried to talk to him, you might not understand a word. Last week I read an article by Giroux on the Benetton 1991 campaign. The author pointed out an ad where there were 3 children. One white, one black and one Asian. I would attach the photo, but thanks to media, you could assume what the image looked like - as races and nationalities were mixed and combined into the representation of the “best example”. The white child was blond with blue eyes, the black child’s skin tone was really dark. And then there was the Asian child, as if that was a race.

The image portrayed by the media not only affects the way we understand and interact with other groups. It also affects and informs those groups represented, giving them an image of their own lives. This puts in question the group’s identity (should I - as an international student - switch to engineering, a field worth leaving your country for?... does the fact that I have a small accent reflect on my identity as an international student? have i forgotten my roots?)

Outside work steve and valentina discussed in relation to the reading
* Giroux, Consuming Social Change: The United Colors of Benetton.1993
* Riddles, jokes and stories from “Childlore” , folk culture for children, are great examples for a discussion of how subcultures
are symptoms and reactions to their context. Passing on from one to another, children tend to preserve traditions,
especially in jokes, fantasies, pranks, nicknames, superstitions, etc. “The conservatism of childlore contrasts
with the way adult folklore is rapidly modified to fit changing circumstances.” (Iona Opie) Children also often take
from the “grown up” world and subvert in into riddles and stories that make no apparent sense. This is in contrast to
the rational adult world, and in response to “being left out” because of their age.

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