Safety Pins, Vaseline, and the Internet; We Are All Deviants:
Dick Hebdige’s “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” and Digital Culture
Much has changed in recent years. Technology has moved forward at an alarming rate, and sometimes it seems as if culture has a hard time keeping up with it. Or at least, the dominant hegemonic culture does. For subcultures, digital technology and in particular the internet have allowed culture to grow at a fast rate, and have also given the power of cultural production and dissemination to a wide range of people. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection now has the power to make an impact not only on a particular subculture, but on mass culture. Digital technologies accelerate the incorporation of deviant subcultures and subtextual meaning and allows more people to access these subcultures more easily. The way that digital technologies allow subcultures to grow in significance is through giving people the power to create cultural products and subvert dominant ideologies through remixing. The emergence of digital cultures and cultural production allows us to revisit Hebdige’s ideas of cultural production and the subversion of dominant ideologies through cultural signifiers.
The first significant aspect of digital culture is the dispensing of physicality. Hebdige notes how, in relation to Saussure and Althusser, the physical world reflects the dominant ideologies and creates a rhetoric to naturalize them. He uses the metaphor of a college building to support this, explaining how different faculty members and fields of study are physically categorized in much the same way as they are intellectually categorized, and how the collegiate classroom is set up to rhetorically create a space in which the professor is naturally dominant (2453). Material cultural products follow this trend in a Marxist sense. As Hebdige points out, Marx specifies that “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production” (2455). Digital culture takes away the physical aspect of cultural production. Cultural production is no longer limited to material products that we can buy or sell. All forms of media can be created by any individual with access to a computer. Photography, image manipulation, audio, video, and more, can all be created and edited digitally. Furthermore, they can easily be widely disseminated through the internet and accessed by anyone who can connect to the internet. This process can be done more quickly and easily than ever before, and it can be done without the need for capital or the means to material production, manufacturing, and dissemination.
Let us return to Hebdige’s metaphor of the college building and discuss the internet as a space. Like the cultural images and other forms of media that can be hosted on it, the internet is of course immaterial. The collegiate building is physically constructed, and as Hebdige points out, it is built in a way that physically and spatially reflects the ideology of the collegiate academy. The internet is a space that is malleable, and any web page can be changed to rhetorically reflect any sort of ideology that it chooses to, or can remain neutral, as is the case with many websites and forums that are based around user-based discussion and created content. It is this non-materiality of space and production that allows radical changes in culture and allows cultural deviance to become easily spread and supported through cultural production.
In a digital world, everything becomes democratized. The production qualities of readily available software, as well having access to a large library of media, allow just about anyone with a computer and a bit of know-how to easily manipulate other materials, and the dissemination potential of the internet ensures that everything gets shared even faster than it was created. For example, early analog processes of sampling and creating sound collages were time- and labor-intensive, involving technical expertise and unwieldy, expensive equipment, and the results were not nearly as polished as digital works are. With the internet and digital tools, people have access to much more source material to manipulate, can more easily craft new works from them, and can quickly and easily share their work to be recycled, remixed and shared again and again by others. Digital technology essentially democratizes the entire process, making sampling, remixing and disseminating cultural products a process for anyone and everyone instead of a privileged few who have the technical know-how and the financial backing and access to the proper equipment to do so. Digital technology is a subculture’s greatest weapon against a constricting hegemonic structure.
Remix culture has formed around the idea that cultural texts that are produced and distributed are not at the end of the creation process. With the freedoms afforded by a digital, networked culture, consumers enter a conversation with the text in a more active way than they were able to previously. Hebdige mentions how everyday objects can be reappropriated and given subversive meanings in a stylistic opposition to hegemonic ideology. He provides the examples of safety pins being used to pierce the body and vaseline being used for sexual lubricant.
These ‘humble objects’ can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued oppression. (2456)
This resistance against cultural oppression through stylistic appropriation of products can be done through digital means too. But in the case of digital culture, this reappropriation is non-material. Images can be taken and manipulated in order to convey a certain social or political message. The signified meaning of subcultural resistance no longer needs to be done through appropriation of material objects to create different meaning. Digital technology allows subcultures to be outwardly political, by taking media and digitally manipulating them or changing their context in order to satirize or create a political message. Engagement with culture is no longer limited to vocal conversation with others or through subversive stylistic significations. It is now possible to take any media and create a new message from it by remixing or recontextualizing.
Digital technologies also give a new kind of cultural power to the masses by allowing them to actually create cultural products. Marx demonstrates how the ruling class remains the ruling class by controlling the means of cultural production, but the very nature of the internet and digital technologies decentralize control of cultural production. Thus, the war on cultural production no longer needs to be fought “obliquely, through style” (2456), but it can be fought outwardly by matching blow for blow the cultural production of the hegemonic dominant class. Volosinov wrote that “sign becomes the arena of the class struggle,” but digital technologies allow actual cultural production to be the arena of the class struggle (2456).
As Lauri Väkevä asserts in his essay “Garage Band or Garageband®? Remixing Musical Features:”
As digital technology has brought the mixing practices to everybody’s reach and offered a global distribution and exchange network for new mixes, we can truly speak of musical works as emergent communal processes. In these processes what was originally ‘a mix’ becomes material for new creative ways of projecting oneself in artistic-technological space. This shifts the aesthetic focus from products to processes, from individual expression to communication (61).
This concept is applicable not just to music but to all of cultural production.
Digital technologies blur the line between producer and consumer. In a digital culture that is based around the creation and sharing of cultural products and media, a work is never finished in the traditional sense, but is always subject to being appropriated, remixed or redone in some way to continue the communal creation of art and cultural products. Products instead become a process, with every work of media being a jumping-off point for someone else to create their own meaning using that media.
Take for example The Avalanches’ 2000 album Since I Left You. Just as Hebdige uses punk and other deviant subcultures as an example for the ideological class struggle that is waged on a semiotic level, I would argue that this same class war is carried out through cultural production on the level of music. Let us look specifically at the lead title track. This song is composed from seven main samples which form the backbone of the song, taking samples and loops of varying length from such diverse artists as The Main Attraction, Tony Mottola, Rose Royce, The Duprees, Lamont Dozier, and Klaus Wunderlich, not to mention a host of other small snippets of sound sampled from sources that are not mentioned in the album’s liner notes (“Since I Left You”). These samples were obtained by taking snippets of sound from vinyl records, rearranging them, mixing and modulating them and creating layers of sound using the recorded samples through the use of digital samplers and audio sequencers. This technology allows them to deconstruct these songs and rearrange and recontextualize them, combining them with other recorded material and putting them into a hip-hop/electronic context alongside big house beats. Their playful deconstruction along with this advanced audio processing technology and editing expertise allows them to have as much freedom in creating sounds and moods from already–recorded material as a band writing, playing and recording their own music. Suffice it to say that the bands’ members are not limited by the product they are given by mass media. Music, then, becomes just like the punks’ safety pins and vaseline. In the same way that the punks stylize their dissent by piercing themselves with safety pins, using them for an “illegitimate purpose,” musicians like The Avalanches take already-created (and usually copyrighted) materials and use them as a large soundboard to create their own music product.
This is playful piracy. On one level, the act of using other artists’ music becomes part of The Avalanches’ style. In a lot of cases, the voices on the sample used, or the sound of a certain instrument, or the particular ambience or sound quality of a sample used simply cannot be recreated, even with the most sophisticated equipment. The act of sampling gives the artist a sound set that is only limited by the extent of their music collection and their editing expertise (and in the case of The Avalanches, their editing skills are masterful and their music collection is the stuff of legends). The inclusion of musical sources from different styles and time periods creates a nostalgic pastiche of different sounds and feelings. Each sample carries with it a slew of emotions, memories and associated meanings. The whole of the album becomes a joyous celebration of music for music’s sake, and let the powers that seek to own and control them be damned.
On another level, sampling is a type of stylistic dissent that is political in nature. The act of taking another’s work, owned and already disseminated by major corporations, and reusing it without consent is a conscious act against the restrictive laws of copyright and intellectual property. Hebdige argues that
Hegemony can only be maintained so long as the dominant classes ‘succeed in framing all competing definitions within their range’, so that subordinate groups are, if not controlled, then at least contained within an ideological space which does not seem at all ‘ideological’: which appears instead to be permanent and ‘natural’, to lie outside history, to be beyond particular interests. (2455)
Sampling turns all of this on its head. When a work can be cut, pasted, chopped, screwed, warped and combined with other sources that have been given the same treatment, the dominant class no longer has control over how the works they own are treated. The works are completely removed from the ideological space that the ruling hegemonic class would have them maintain. Sampling and remixing is a completely deviant art form that pays no tribute to the corporations that would maintain hegemonic ideological control over all the music they purport to own.
Henry Jenkins asserts that “in a folk culture, there is no clear division between producers and consumers” (Jenkins). Since I Left You is a wonderful example of folk culture in action. The members of the group are themselves consumers, purchasing a large amount of vinyl records and listening to them in depth, but their purpose is not simply to consume and be entertained. Instead, they turn around and use this material as an aural palette to create their own work, which in turn becomes available for consumption, and deconstructed itself and used for production. Works can be remixed or sample, disseminated, sent along to someone else who can then rework that, and the cycle continues. Then, what would be a cultural ‘product’ instead becomes a ‘process,’ a communal conversation amongst fans and artists, blurring the line more and more between consumer and producer. And when there finally is no line between producer and consumer, the class division that is central to hegemonic control over a culture becomes unstable. Dissent becomes not just stylistic, symbolic or ideological: it becomes actual. Sampling, remixing, and creating digital works are more than activism, and are more powerful than creating statements. They create the culture that they wish to have. There is no need to voice your dissent of the dominant class that is in control of culture, because you can simply go out and create the culture that you want. This has always been true in a sense, as we see with various folk cultural traditions and with the youth subcultural movements that Hebdige documents, but with digital technologies and networking, that culture is no longer relegated to a subpar status. It does not have to be specific to a small regional area, being subculturally relevant only until it gets commodified and hegemonized, as punk did. Now, that subculture can immediately affect mass culture as a whole, without going through the ruling class to make that impact. There is no filter and no limit to the way you can change your own culture.
It is digital technology that makes a folk cultural piece like Since I Left You possible. In a digital world, the lines between author and reader, producer and consumer, become blurred. Digital technologies afford people the ability to engage with texts in entirely new ways. Namely, by means of producing new texts. Sample and remix culture has formed around the idea that cultural texts that are produced and distributed are not at the end of the creation process. With the freedoms afforded by a digital, networked culture, consumers enter a conversation with culture in a more active way than they were able to previously. Cultural engagement or dissent no longer has to be fought solely on the semiotic level. Everyone is able to get more involved with culture, creating more cultural products and sharing them with others, shaping culture as they go along.
Sampling and remix culture in music is representative of digital culture as a whole. As modern society becomes further and further ingrained in digital culture, and as our use of technology changes the way we think and the ways in which we participate in and process culture, this becomes more relevant. Sampling culture is both the easiest way to make explicit the major forces at work in our culture today and one of the most in-depth ways of actually engaging with it. As we move away from thinking of cultural products as something that is physical, there becomes less and less space between cultural products and cultural ideology. Everything is mutable, nothing is fixed, and everyone is a consumer and producer both. Digital cultures challenge the idea of an assumed ideology for a culture and for cultural products. With less and less physicality and fixity, everyday people become more and more in control of their own culture, whether they realize it or not, by being able to directly affect cultural production.
Sample culture is the post-modern world of popular culture blissfully aware of itself. It is more than stealing or plundering; it is conscious cryptomnesia, and it argues that that is good, that it builds upon culture. In a culture based around the idea of sharing, ideas of individual ownership are thrown out the window, personal claims toward genius and financial success foregone for the advancement of culture and artistic expression. Digital culture as a whole promotes these ideas.
In “Subculture,” Hebdige addresses Stuart Hall’s theories about ‘maps of meaning.’ Hebdige explains that these maps “cut across a range of potential meanings, making certain meanings available and ruling others out of court…they ‘think’ us as much as we ‘think’ them, and this in itself is quite ‘natural’ (2454). Does digital culture deconstruct these maps of meaning, turning culture on its ear and decentralizing the controlling forces of culture? The simple answer is ‘yes.’ By letting everyone get involved with cultural production, everyone is able to make their own visions and interpretations of culture a reality, intangible though it may be. The real answer is much more complicated. Although it is true that anyone with a reasonable amount of technological access can participate in cultural production, we must think about who still really has the control. Anyone may be able to produce culture, but in the context of a capitalistic system, we must think about who controls the capital. The more pessimistic way of looking at these new means of cultural production would be to say that although we are given more freedom in terms of defining our own culture, the ruling class is still controlling the capital. Although I can make a YouTube video that is a pithy, biting criticism of capitalistic control over the common people, the fact remains that that video is being hosted on servers owned by Google and is only there because they allow it to be. No matter how many hits it gets and no matter how many people agree with my (hypothetical) radical views that corporations need to be completely destroyed, Google is the party that truly benefits. As hundreds of thousands little anarchists in the making flock to my video and generate hits, Google is getting more and more money from the (again hypothetical) advertisements that show up on my page for cars, jewelry and your friendly local big oil companies.
This begs the question: ‘how real is our cultural production?’ Why does it matter that we can have a direct effect on the way that our culture is represented if the same controlling powers are the ones that make capital from it? How much is cultural capital worth in the face of the very real disgusting amounts of money that major corporations make off the work that you and I do? Is this just another form of soma? Does the fact that I can make politically charged art and raving political commentary simply placate me to accept the established hegemony in the same way that three fingers (or eight or nine, or you know, whatever; I’ll play it by ear) of Maker’s after a hard day’s work placates me enough to go to work again the next day? Here Hebdige’s arguments that subcultural dissent is stylistic hold true. There are ways that all of our efforts to change and contribute to culture are very real, and keep folk cultural traditions very much alive. There are certain ways that I am freer, in more control of the culture that I am a part of. And then there are ways in which I am no more free than my father was or his father before him in terms of my cultural participation. Whether these digital tools are swords and fire or just safety pins and vaseline, the fact remains that subcultural dissent still remains and probably always will; the way that it works has just changed. There is a new arena for the semiotic war over culture. The punks of the 70s and 80s had safety pins and vaseline, and I have the internet and a laptop.
Hebdige, Dick. “From Subculture: The Meaning of Style.” The Norton Anthology of
Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et. al. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 2001. 2448-2457.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
The Avalanches. “Since I Left You. Since I Left You. Modular Recordings, 2000.
Väkevä, Lauri. “Garage Band or Garageband®? Remixing Musical Features.” British Journal of Music Education. 27.1 (2010): 59 – 70.