Monday, February 28, 2011

Subculture: The Unnatural Break

by Rebecca Ann Wong

In his article “Subculture: The Unnatural Break”, Dick Hebdige addresses how the post-war British youth subcultures (which he defines as spectacular subcultures) disturbed and challenged orderly social systems, making them ‘unnatural’ (153).

Hebdige uses the example of punk to outline his theories, and in particular, he addresses the Sex Pistols as the band that brought the punk subculture towards the public eye. It just so happened that one of their television appearances coincided with the time in which the punk style was in its beginning stages of being discovered by the media.

Hebdige then goes on to discuss how society attempts to accommodate these subcultures through two different forms of incorporation: the commodity form and the ideological form. Hebdige describes these forms of incorporations as a mode of ‘recuperation’ (154) that society takes on, since subcultures are seen as movements deviating from the norm, creating ‘a wave of hysteria’(153) and thereby testing the order and structure of society in this way.

Hebdige defines the first form of incorporation, the commodity form, to be the occurrence in which society attempts to convert the attributes of a certain subculture into something less exclusive. This is done by taking the style, trends, dress, music etc of the subcultures and popularizing them so that the subcultures lose their exclusivity. the main force behind this marketing of subcultures as a form of merchandise is the media and as a result, the aspects that once rendered each subculture unique gradually become mass-produced commodities made available to all.

The second form that society uses to incorporate subcultures into the bigger picture is deemed by Hebdige to be the ideological form. Here, he brings in the concept of ‘the Other” and addresses how the media can both draw excessive attention to subcultures, as well as downplay and diminish interest in them. In order to explain this, Hebdige considers two strategies that have developed so that the threats posed by subcultures are removed. The first of the strategies adopts the thinking that ‘the difference is simply denied’ (155). This means that the subculture is ‘trivialized, naturalized and domesticated’ (155) and ‘the Other’ as a whole is removed from the picture. On the otherhand, the other strategy (known as meaningless exotica) results in the subculture becoming less relevant and simply less intriguing and curious for the public. As a result, there is a shrinking disparity between the subcultures and mainstream culture.

Indeed, subcultures are akin to ‘noises’ (152) as Hebdige describes due to their ability to disrupt society's structured order and engage the attention of the masses.

Hebdige, Dick. "Subculture: The Unnatural Break". Subculture: The Meaning of Style. England: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1987. 90-99. Print.