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...