I’ve always been disdainful of the idea that a person’s hairstyle or sartorial choices were ways of asserting individuality. Being an individual, I’ve always thought, requires something more substantial.
I’m reading a book on subcultures and it’s providing me with a more nuanced view of the question. The book is an influential work from 1979 called “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” and it focuses on youth subcultures in post-war Britain, mostly on the punk movement of the late 1970s.
Through the lens of semiotics, the author explains such seemingly superficial choices not as expressions of individuality, but as signals of subculture identification. The point isn’t to express a unique identity, but to associate with a subculture in rebellion against the hegemonic culture. It’s a way of asserting solidarity with a community that has separated itself from the larger community in defiance of the prevailing “hegemonic myth” which is supposed to bind everyone together within a structure of unquestioned assumptions.
So, seemingly trivial objects become invested with meaning when they become “signs of forbidden identity” and even “tokens of self-imposed exile.” Style takes on a substance.
A substance of sorts. There’s something circular in this view of things, it seems to me. The question remains whether the punk movement or any youth subculture is actually setting itself apart from the “hegemonic culture” in any substantial way, or only stylistically.
Regardless, I’ve downloaded the first album by The Stooges and I’ve been listening to it all morning.