Thursday, September 10, 2009

Punk-Style and Sub-Cultural Theory.

The role and significance of sub-cultural style and its relationship to mainstream culture, moreover its political connotations have been an area of contention within sub-cultural theory. A seminal account of sub-cultural dynamics was postulated by Hebdige who drew on theories from disciplines diverse as Semiotics and Anthropology. Hebdige considered sub-cultural style to be grounded in the re-appropriation and subversion of the mainstream cultural order by alienated groups. This implies that style itself has a political dimension and that sub-cultural style is innately politically challenging (effectively or not) within the power relations of society. The task of this paper will be to shed further light on Hebdige’s theory of sub-cultural style as a form of re-appropriation and insubordination, building up from the theoretical antecedents to an application of the theory to punk subculture. Additionally, I will evaluate Hebdige’s thesis on the nature of sub-cultural style and its political dimensions.

The thesis advanced by Hebdige on the dynamics and significance of sub-cultural style has been influenced by a number of paradigms and theorists including but not limited to; The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony, Barthes’ semiotics and Levi-Strauss’s notion of Bricolage (Nilan, 2007, p. 116; Hebdige, 1981, pp. 101-103). The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies was itself heavily influenced by Antonito Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. That is, that within a class society the ruling class cannot maintain power over subordinated classes by the violence of the state alone. Concurrently, the ruling classes must mobilise intellectual dominance in the form of normalised ideologies (Gramsci, 1988, pp 193-4). Birmingham school scholars utilised the concept of hegemony in explaining the nature of working-class youth sub-cultures in terms of a resistance to hegemony. They saw this class as reacting to social structures which marginalise them (Nilan, 2007, p 116). Resistance does not necessarily manifest itself as a distinct and tangible phenomenon. Are sub-cultures such as punk to be considered legitimate forms of political resistance or are they ineffective and do they inadvertently support the establishment? In response to this, Hebdige built a theory of sub-cultural style borrowing in part from Gramsci and earlier Birmingham scholars as well as integrating the Semiotics of Barthes, among other components.

The semiotic analysis of Barthes (1973, p. 120) was designed as a study of “significations apart from their content”. Arguing that objects have meanings - are “signifiers”, in so far as they are “signified”, to become a “sign”, that is to say, meanings are encoded upon an object rather then meaning being intrinsic to objects (Barthes, 1973, pp. 120-121). The cultural order of represented meanings is therefore a system of signs. Barthes argued that in modern Bourgeois society, cultural systems of representation are constructed to present Bourgeois society as natural and inevitable. He termed this the attempted presentation of the “immobility of nature” (Barthes, 1973, pp. 162-163). Hebdige (1981, p. 102) conceptualized sub-cultural style as an activity of subverting this ‘natural’ cultural order through a process of re-contextualizing. That is, removing objects from there traditional location and assigning new meanings in place of old connotations.

The Bricolage theory was a concept advanced by Levi-Strauss and featured in Hebdige’s work. Bricolage refers to the systems of meanings represented in objects that can be re-worked and re-contextualized spontaneously to produce new meanings and forms of understanding communicated between participants (Hebdige, 1981, p.103). According to Hebdige, style as a collection of diverse elements and objects brought together from a variety of sources to communicate meanings is a form of Bricolage. The sub-cultural Bricolage, according to Hebdige (1981, p. 103) is both an enterprise of “conspicuously refused” forms of consumption, and simultaneously a culture of “conspicuous consumption”. This is communicated through the re-appropriation and re-contextualizing of signs (commodities, bodies, etcetera) to produce new significations. Punk epitomized these dynamics, re-appropriating cultural forms and denying others, forming a neoteric mosaic of meanings - communicating oppositional defiance in the face of mainstream culture. This sub-culture hence can serve as an empirical case study, to test the conceptual framework which has been built up by Hebdige from the Birmingham school, Gramsci, Barthes and Levi-Strauss to form his theory of sub-cultural style.

The punk sub-cultural style developed in a social malaise of urban youth suffering from unemployment and marginalization, they reacted by exercising their power to offend and disrupt the social order (Hebdige, 1988, p. 18). “Fuck” and “Cunt”, words eschewed by mainstream culture as highly offensive obscenities were a stock standard of punk lyrics and publications (Triggs, 2006, p. 73). This represents an affront to the cultural norms and practices of the mainstream culture and legitimate language used by the respectable classes. To this end punk “fanzines”, do it yourself (DIY) publications, often had an amateurish feel with spelling and grammatical errors left unfixed to further emphasize their rejection mainstream conventions (Triggs, 2006, p. 73). Rejection of convention was not limited to the intentional ‘miss’ use of language, re-appropriation of cultural signs and the re-contextualization of commodities was a foundational element of punk sub-cultural style.

The safety pin, an object associated with domestication and the family function of social reproduction, was inserted through the ears by Punks, an ironic play on an old sign to present a confronting oppositional stance (Hebdige, 1981, p. 107). This represents both an instance of Bricolage and subversion of the established sign-system; innovation with existing cultural objects and the assignment of new sign-values over old meanings. In this light, Umberto Eco’s phrase “semiotic guerilla warfare” was utilized by Hebdige (1981, p. 105) as a description of sub-cultural style, insubordination and ironic play with cultural signs. This ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’, along with actual violence provoked intense media attention on the ‘youth problem’ (Hebdige, 1988, pp. 18-19).

Symbolic subversion and physical violence provoked a dual reaction from the establishment; the introduction of new social programs aimed at alleviating youth’s dispossession and the importation of new means of crowd control (Hebdige, 1988, p .18). Therefore according to Hebdige (1988, p. 18) sub-cultural style functioned as a method utilized by subordinated groups (racial minorities, working-class youth) to enter into a dialogue with the establishment, making their position into a salient feature of the social body. Consequently Punks rejected their subordinate position within society; this logic leads to a consideration of punk’s political dimension and the politics of sub-cultural style.

The discussion over the political dimension of punk in particular and sub-cultural style in general spans a broad spectrum; from resistance to the establishment to complicity in re-producing social structure (Raby, 2005, pp. 155-156). The Birmingham school of cultural studies saw youth sub-cultures as acts of resistance to the establishment, in terms of rejecting the hegemonic norms of the ruling class (Nilan, 2007, p 116). For other theorists this resistance to the hegemony of the ruling class has resulted in the re-production of the hegemonic norms and power-relations (Raby, 2005, p.156). Hebdige (1988, p.35) argues between these two positions that sub-culture and sub-cultural style represent neither “commercial exploitation’ nor ‘Genuine revolt” but the creation of an independent, insubordinate identity, if only as an ephemeral phase.

A salient example of this punk sub-cultural style is the punk-rock band ‘The Sex Pistols’; this band symbolized the rebellious and anarchic sprit of the Punks (Moore, 2004, p. 315). Malcolm McLaren, the bands manager, presented the history of the band in the film ‘The Great Rock N, Roll Swindle’ as an intentional commercial enterprise aimed at turning teen rebellion into cash (Moore, 2004, p.315). “Post-subcultural theorists” contend that, in line with McLaren’s history, sub-culture style is often imbibed with features of capitalism (Raby, 2005, p. 157). Marcuse (1972, p. 21) argued that the construction of identity through commodity consumption is an underlying ideological grid which unifies divergent elements into the establishment. Punk sub-cultural style in this schema while subverting the existing sign-system through re-contextualizing the usage of commodities still remains complicit in the establishment by the continued commodification of the self.

Sub-cultural style, in respect to its political opposition to the establishment is superficial, remaining on the symbolic level, leaving the fundamental social structures in place. Punk’s sub-cultural style was an expression of political opposition, arising in reaction to the condition of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, youth and the working-class. Hebdige sort to understand the dynamics of punk and other sub-cultural styles constructing a theory of sub-cultural style complied out of a number of theoretical antecedences as shown through the works of Birmingham cultural studies scholars, Gramsci, Barthes and Levi-Strauss. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony established the foundational research parameters by establishing a model of how class societies are ‘harmonized’ not only by means of violence but also intellectual dominance and the creations of a cultural sphere with inherent value biases. Birmingham cultural studies scholars applied this theory of hegemony to post-WWII youth sub-cultures to understand their ‘deviance’ in terms of resistance to the hegemonic norms of the class society. Barthes’s semiotics went further in elucidating the dynamics of sign-systems and the encoding of meanings into objects as forms of cultural representation (and domination), the manipulation and innovation of these sign-system was conceptualized by Levi-Strauss in his concept of Bricolage. Hebdige’s integration of these elements to formulate a theory of sub-cultural style which can be seen in his conception of the punk movement: punks re-appropriated and collated divergent cultural representations to shock, confront and offend the establishment. In a reaction to their subordination they represented insubordination. Their style was political, yet effectively superficial.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Barthes, R. (1973), Mythologies, Glasgow: Paladin.

Gramsci, A. (1988), “Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc”, edited by Forgacs, D. A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart Limited, Great Britain.

Hebdige, D (1981), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Metheun.

Hebdige, D. (1988), Hiding the Light, London: Routledge.

Marcuse, H. (1972), One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London: Abacus.

Moore, R. (2004). "Postmodernism and Punk Subculture: Cultures of Authenticity and Deconstruction.”, The Communication Review, Vol. 7, No. 3: pp. 305-327.

Nilan, P. (2007), “Youth Culture”, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, Edited Poole, M. and Germov, J. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Raby, R. (2005). "What is Resistance?", Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 8. No 2: pp. 151-171.

Triggs, T. (2006), "Scissors and Glue: Punk Fanzines and the Creation of a DIY Aesthetic.", Journal of Design History, Vol. 19, No. 1: pp. 69-83.

(written late 2007)


Gargantuan Media said...

I enjoyed reading your essay on subculture.

If you look at the venues for bands like Husker Dü in the the 1980's they were playing in strange, tiny dives like Mabuhay Garndens in San Francisco which was actually a Phillipino Social club.

This stuff was never meant for the mainstream air-head acts like Menudo or Ratt - early 80's bands that were selling out arenas...

Mathew Toll said...

If you liked that one you'll also like

Anonymous said...

I dig this very much- thank you!

Mathew Toll said...

Thanks Anonymous.

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