Hebdige, an academic with a background in visual arts, is concerned with the U.K.’s postwar, music-centered, white working-class subcultures, from Teddy boys to mods and rockers to skinheads to punks. Punk receives by far the most attention because it is the most recent, but also because it was the most extreme and conscious–if punks did not always understand the history they were making, they at least knew they were making history.
Subculture is organized around two basic arguments. The first, drawn from Roland Barthes and semiotics, has to do with the way subcultures contradict and disrupt the mainstream culture. “Ideology,” Hebdige writes, “saturates everyday discourse in the form of common sense… Social relations and processes…are shrouded in a ‘common sense’ which simultaneously validates and mystifies them.” The dominant culture “masquerades as nature,” rather than appearing as it really is: a fabricated construct meant to enforce specific class interests. Subcultures, especially punk, break through this process of validation and mystification, subvert common sense, reveal the ideology inherent in manners, commodities and routines, and thus make it possible to challenge that ideology.
A seemingly “unnatural” society is organized within the host culture. The system of common sense, forced to incorporate the “unnatural,” begins to deliver messages of no-sense. The subculture is “not only… a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but… an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.” This can work on a level as trivial as that of the Sex Pistols swearing on TV or as profound as their “Holidays in the Sun,” which was virtually a proof-in-action of Hebdige’s argument. Not only was it an example of semantic disorder; semantic disorder is what it was about.
Hebdige’s second argument is that the natures of white subcultures have been determined by their relationships to black subcultures (hipster/Teddy boy, soul-man/mod/rude boy/skinhead, Rastaman/punk) but that white subcultures are by no means explicable as simple white-on-black imitations. “The succession of white subcultural forms,” Hebdige writes, “can be read as a series of deep-structural adaptations which symbolically accommodate or expunge the black presence from the host community.”
It was reggae, Hebdige argues, that took the crucial step that made possible the coups of punk (its creation of disorder not only on the streets but within the system of common sense as such). The replacement of the anomic rude-boy rebel by the Jah-inspired Rastafarian shifted the conflict “beyond the obvious arena of law and order to the level of the ‘obvious’ itself,” and it was over the definition of the “obvious” that the punk battle was fought. Reggae’s representation of itself as a complete, self-justifying system of manners, values and (lack of) commodities suggested that the hegemony of common sense could be challenged not just through “protest” but as a matter of being–or daily life. The naturalistic mask of the dominant culture was pierced, and one found oneself dealing with the dominant culture as if its systems were on the defensive.
You could hear this shift in the introduction of the ghostly, disorienting textures of dub into reggae–and you could hear it in the screech and clash of punk. The current success in the U.K. of the ska-mod revival, led by biracial bands, suggests that for many this shift went too far: that for white (and black?) youths today, ska and mod are a way of accommodating or expunging the presence of both Rasta and punk, a way of replacing the mask, a retreat to the semantic comforts of “common sense.” And this may be a truly unprecedented shift: black culture used by whites (and blacks?) to smother the subversion of white culture.
The great value of Hebdige’s book is that, as you read it, it is impossible to stop thinking.
Rolling Stone, May 1, 1980