Subculture and Personal and Cultural History

Valuable as its examinations are, Dick Hebdige’s “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” is a book that must qualify its points somewhat. As Hebdige concludes, “we, the sociologists and interested straights, threaten to kill with kindness the forms which we seek to elucidate,” and that many of the members of the subcultures explored within the book may take issue with or fail to see themselves accurately presented within its cultural examinations. In that way, its explorations can only go so far with individual specificity. But in terms of elucidating major cultural movements and general reasons behind the formation of subcultures, the book is tremendously helpful.

Subculture, I feel, has sort of shifted in formations today. I believe social media in particular has changed how it is expressed, perhaps less associating with a presentation of style and more with a sharing of digital space, often? Certainly, I feel like many social media and fan spaces have taken up such a mantle. But the roots of so many modern subcultures and, more importantly, the reasons for their formation do connect back to these formations traced in the 70s. Though, perhaps, it’s not so common to see people walk around as coordinated skinhead groups in boots or all with close cut hair, the practice of taking cultural signifiers and reshaping them into a rebellious meaning to distance onesself is one that occurs, I think, quite significantly, even in different ways. And aesthetics like punk and glam rock still surround my life with surprising frequency even in my typical ignorance to their history, showcasing their enduring power.

Because the world has been changed by these movements, and because they shape my life in ways that I never really consider, reading about their history and their reasons for forming increased my understanding of my own world. My dad in particular is English, and has quite an interest in music that I never quite shared, but have sort of unconsciously osmosed over the years. I remember always being struck by how much more daring and outwardly political it seemed than him; for example, I recall first asking who Nelson Mandela was as a result of The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela,” a ska, reggae, and punk rock influenced by a number of these subcultures and illustrating also, I think, the massive influence of Afro-Caribbean diaspora on that culture and time. I was quite taken with the suggestion that “while white working-class youths will in all probability remain working class throughout their lives, they will eventually grow up and settle down to a place if not in the sun then at least in the consensus. Blacks, on the other hand, never lose what is, in our society, the disability of blackness.” I feel like that may offer a window onto my personal family’s past and relationship with music, one that I appreciated greatly. I hope to get the chance to discuss the material in this book with my family, and see how, in this particular case, the personal holds up to the sociological examination, or rejects the categorization.

All the best critical theory and cultural studies, I think, can create a personal connection for me and teach me something new about the world I already know, help me understand it. This opened my eyes about familiar worlds. And I hope to explore that further.


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