Was Dick Hebdige right about subcultures?

Those of you who read my recent Buzzcocks review will have noticed the fact that I am locked in an ongoing debate with the work of the social theorist Dick Hebdige.

Now, whilst my arguments with him are less fierce than say, those with Alain Badiou or my ultra-nemesis Clement Greenberg, I still feel that many of Hebdige’s ideas have failed to stand the test of time. For the uninitiated, Hebdige is best known for a 1979 work called Subcultures€ still often taught in Sociology and even more so in my own field, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.

“Subcultures” is a detailed but comprehensive work looking at Rastafarians, mods, teddy boys and punks. It was the first book to intellectually deal with punk and thus we should be grateful for that. But the conclusions he comes to are open to debate. “Subculture is no force for revolution,” he writes, concerning punk.

But was he speaking to soon?

Now, we have the benefit of history to see that punk made a difference – and as the academic world has become more broad-minded, we can see that there is more than one kind of “revolution. Dr. Paul Gladston (acclaimed writer, academic critic and my supervisor) values Hebdige enormously but also points out that “revolution can mean gender revolution, race revolution, anything…and subcultures open up a lot of these doors.€

When raising these issues with Pete Shelley, in spite of not having read Hebdige he still managed to argue with him once I’d run through his ideas, pointing out €œpunk opened the doors for people to be themselves…its true there’€™s different kind of revolution,€ echoing his claims in 1978 that there are different kinds of political’ €œyou need to change the people as individuals before you can change them en masse.

Of course, Hebdige was in two ways a product of his era. One is that of the old fashioned academic. He was from the tradition commonly referred to in CTCS circles as ‘€œfusty old Marxist’ a term meant with more affection than it initially seems! Hebdige is prepared to acknowledge punk as “culture” and he draws a lineage from Jean Genet and Roland Barthes, but substance for him is a whole separate matter. At times he seems to have an almost naive view of what can reach the young generation – at one point seeming genuinely shocked when a group of young people prefer The Face to some traditional political publications. He has a tendency to over-intellectualise everything (for example, he credits the thinness of punk musicians to “self conscious austerity in the face of capitalism” – really?), but that’€™s what critics do (guilty as charged)

Ziggy played guitar and...Dick Hebdige- wrong or right?

Ziggy played guitar and…Dick Hebdige- wrong or right?

But the other way he is a product of his era is the time in which he was writing. The heyday of punk may have been and gone by the time ‘€œSubcultures’€ was published, but it did not have the benefit of the passing of time to show any long-term impact it might have had on culture. He was not alone in his line of thinking – Derek Jewell from The Times wrote in the late 70’s that punk was such a fad that those who endorsed it were ‘eventually going to look very silly!’€

I couldn’t really manage without a copy of €œSubcultures€, but its there to be argued with as much to lend guidance. It still has a role to play as a taught text, but as something for the ideas to be considered, rather than just taken at face value – perhaps it should be taught alongside more recent punk texts with have the benefit of history behind them? And, aside all this, a whole year earlier, Mark Perry had essentially said everything Hebdige says in a textbook in one song (the drily witty ‘€œHow Much Longer?€) Alternative TV for the Cultural Studies syllabus, anyone?…


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2 comments on “Was Dick Hebdige right about subcultures?”

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  1. Which more recent punk texts would you recommend?! Thanks!

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