Hebdige on Subculture: The Emergent Worlds

In his book “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” Richard Hedbige discusses the ways in which subcultures work to define society in their own terms.

What I found particularly interesting, is the way Hedbige begins his discussion with a focus on ideology, and the way ideology inscribes itself on form and style, which is something we do not frequently think about. Taking a Structuralist approach, Hebdige draws upon Ferdinand Saussure’s framework in regards to linguistics, arguing that everything in society carries semiotic meaning. In other words, everything, even the ways rooms are designed, etc., are based upon certain ideological structures that dictate even the way we perceive the organization of space (he gives the example of a classroom and the way the professor is usually positioned on an elevated platform before the students, showing how our society conceives of the process of teaching and learning). According to my understanding of the reading, Hebdige claims that the way subcultures distinguish themselves and establish their places in the world, is by reconfiguring the very structures that have been organized under the hegemonic notions of the dominant group, whose ideological structures have left no place to accommodate the needs of the groups that are often forgotten or purposefully left unrecognized.

For the non-dominant groups in society, the way they conceive of and fashion style, becomes their way of staking out a place in culture, where there previously was none. The problem, however, arises when the dominant culture works to assimilate and move the emergent styles into dominant style. In this way, the revolutionary and unique spirit with which the new style was imbued, is stripped away by the media that provides an often unwelcome spotlight, or by the commodification of these styles.

Much of what the Hebdige reading reminded me of was VJ Um Amel’s R-Shief. In one of the article’s I read about VJ Um Amel’s project, it discussed the ways in which her work is redefining the way history is written by giving a voice to the groups who before did not have one, given that the narrative of history was usually written from the perspective of the dominant group. By analyzing and compiling tweets, VJ Um Amel was able to bring previously unheard voices out of the shadows and give them the weight to impact peoples’ conception of an event, and eventually peoples’ historical consciousness.

The tweets analyzed by VJ Um Amel take on particular meaning and weight when they are understood specifically in the context in which they emerged, and the motivations that incited peoples’ urgency to tweet whatever they did. Similarly, Hedbige discusses at length the way the style of a subculture is meaningful when it is understood within the context in which it arose, when the structures around which people conceived their redefinition of style are considered. Once the style is extracted from its original context, it loses its true purpose as well as its capacity to give voices to those whose voices and existence within society were not previously recognized.


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