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Author: Timothy Dugdale
Title: Dick Hebdige: Unplugged and Greased Back
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Spring 2004

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Source: Dick Hebdige: Unplugged and Greased Back
Timothy Dugdale

vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2004
Article Type: Interview

Dick Hebdige: Unplugged and Greased Back

Timothy Dugdale

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The Man and One of His Better Machines, Dick Hebdige circa 1995.


Dick Hebdige hasn't published a book since the late eighties. A cynic might be temped to call him the J.D. Salinger of cultural studies. But Subculture: The Meaning of Style was the Everest to which countless scholars scrambled to ascend. Hebdige the theorist was not unlike the punks he studied: he said his piece quickly, forcefully, and got out before he became a commodified joke. He was right. Just look at the unfortunate reification of cultural studies, particularly in the united states where publish-or-perish ruled supreme at its academies. After his elegiac ode to cultural studies in Hiding in the Light, Hebdige focused on his lectures, unique presentations involving off-beat monologues barely yet brilliantly supported by a dusty albeit impressive collection of slides and VHS snippets. Hebdige is the embodiment of resistance; he says no to the people and things we are asked to blindly embrace and he says no with integrity, with grit, with style. More importantly, Hebdige offers no solutions, only questions. This conversation is between two old friends, both foreigners, living in Bush's America, a sad depressing place. As the transcript attests, now more than ever, Hebdige is a must.

The Man and His Machines

DUGDALE: The first time I caught your act was thirteen years ago at the Art Gallery of Windsor. You were using VHS tapes and a slide projector. I must say, the delivery is a bit more refined but you're still using those technologies. Why?

HEBDIGE: I'm using some of the same slides, you notice that? [chuckles all around] Mickey Mouse and the globe? Very grubby, yes, but I just got addicted to that particular combination and learned to master it. The analogy we were making yesterday was to James Benning [American experimental documentarian] and 16mm film. Every time he does a screening it is a disaster because none of these film studies places have the projectors any more. So immediately you have to do an audit of the whole institution's capacity to handle these outmoded technologies. There are payoffs to that as well——

DUGDALE: The work certainly seems handcrafted.

HEBDIGE: Yeah, you place some pressure on the institution's commitment to supporting the history of communication technology. The people behind instructional resources, their heads are so pitched into the future.

DUGDALE: Exactly. They had that state of the art podium in the auditorium in which you spoke, and then behind it, a closet with your preferred gear.

HEBDIGE: There's an insistence that you have to translate everything you do into the coming mode. I like wearing retro clothes, the car I drive, the way I choose to live, there's a certain residual quality to it. I like the awkwardness. I use the word "shambolic" to describe my performances. They're rickety.

DUGDALE: Between shambling and shamanistic?!

HEBDIGE: Shambling, always. Shamanistic, maybe. You're trying to help people overcome their terror of things that are out of their control. That are unanticipated. Their terror of the magician who drops the eggs or can't keep the plates spinning. So there's a comic, a ludic element to that brinkmanship of catastrophe. The technology dream is all about comfort, like a kid tucked into bed. The digital world is going to help us process information so that we are comfortably in control. And I don't think knowledge has anything to do with those information processes. Knowledge comes from things breaking down. As Leonard Cohen said, there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. To a certain extent, I'm trying to orchestrate little disasters. A bit of comedy, a bit of tension, you're bringing in elements of theatre and of ritual. It's definitely not the PowerPoint presentation.

DUGDALE: You've found me out! Marcel [O'Gorman, Director of Electronic Critique] and I were plotting to get your slides into a black box and put them into a neat-o PowerPoint nightmare. But watching your presentation, there is a certain ghoulishness to the process, what is this mad bastard up to? What if it doesn't work?

HEBDIGE: It never works. There's always some sort of breakdown. People are wont to blame me but it's not really my fault. They want something to happen without it happening.

DUGDALE: Very McLuhanesque! You've found the perfect equilibrium between the technology and your unique physiology.

HEBDIGE: PowerPoint is the ironing out of inconsistencies. It's the amplification of clarity. And clarity isn't really what I'm interested in. I want a bit of filth, a bit of opacity because I think knowledge is acquired at some cost. You have to lean forward to understand what's going in the world. You have to make an effort. And if you're continually being told what you're going to hear and then you get a reprise on what you've just been told, this is a large part of the problem in a culture where everybody feels it's their right to feel comfortable all the time. It's not that I want to make people feel uncomfortable, like in avant-garde theatre of the sixties, but I think a bit of friction and breakage helps you remember that you're living in time. You have to co-operate with the person who's up there at the podium.

DUGDALE: It's part of the improvisation. I wish we had had a sampler on hand so that we could have played a loop of a dirty record playing in the background to add a bit more dirt.

HEBDIGE: I also like analog technology because some of those slides do look as if they constitute a health risk. [more chuckles] I don't keep them very well so the filth does accumulate a lot like scratches on a record which you do grow to like. They use samples of scratches now to give music authenticity, don't they? They manufacture the illusion of the analog because people want there to be a relationship between your discourse and your material reality. And digitalization, so much as it involves this detour through binary code and delivery back of this idealized, cleaned-up shadow reality, we don't really know what the implications might be.

DUGDALE: You can have your CD player and turntable side by side with the same work by the same artist ready to go, but it's not the same music, is it?

HEBDIGE: No. With digital, you get pure silence between the beats and the world isn't silent. There's always interference. The world is noisy place. You don't even know if the signals and sounds that you think you shouldn't be interested in are the ones that might be carrying the germ of the future. It's always around the margins of the things you're paying attention to that something is really happening. Wasn't that the whole point of deep focus photography in cinema? [Andre] Bazan's point was that if you could capture the world in depth, then there are things that are being recorded that are beyond your willed attention.

DUGDALE: Orson Welles could play so beautifully with sound precisely because Gregg Toland's deep focus photography. The sound was the aperture.

HEBDIGE: I think if you can distinguish between mastery and control, although I'm not pretending I'm a master... if you're familiar with a particular medium and a particular mode of articulation and you've been doing it for twenty years as I have, you should have your shit together a little bit. I certainly know the groove that I want but I don't try to control what people are thinking about it. You only gain mastery when you lose control. When you're willing to lose control. The jazz of it is that the improvisation is within a larger structure. You have to allow accidents to happen and then turn into the skid.

DUGDALE: Something beautiful can come of that if you can do it.

HEBDIGE: That's the difference between art and instruction. I don't think of myself as a professor. I'm an intellectual. In this country, the intellectual is very hard to place. And very hard to find. [still more chuckles] Academia has become so professionalized and it's merging with the corporation at every level to the extent that the PowerPoint presentation, which was, after all, a pitch mechanism for selling a product or idea in corporate culture, now we're all in the mode where we're supposed to be selling stuff. We're supposed to summarize and not waste students' time.

Since I started doing these mixed media things, people ask why I don't just put the presentation on a CD? But then it's captured. It's nailed down. I saw Harry Smith's opera, Mahagonny. There were four projections onto four pool tables that were mounted on the wall in some crazy Modrian-like pattern. Well, one of the spools broke and a fistfight started. Then the Getty Museum bought it, cleaned it up, and basically homologized it.

DUGDALE: It's a twisted sort of taxidermy, no?

HEBDIGE: Now you can see it, perfectly. As it would have been if there had been a perfect screening. But it wasn't intended as that. What Smith wanted has been perverted by this desire for something that's transportable and portable and museum standard.

9/11, Security, and Geography

DUGDALE: You seem to have a real bee in your bonnet about memory and communication technology, particularly post 9/11.

HEBDIGE: Everybody knows what 9/11 is, even to the point of "eating chicken after 9/11." It's a cliché to say it changed everything but it did. If you look at 11/9/89 when the Berlin Wall came down, there was this triumphalist celebration of freedom, the end of history, this magical confluence of the spread of democracy and neo-liberal economics, freedom, liberty, the freedom of movement. Then the planes went into the buildings on 9/11 and suddenly it was the end of "the end of history." Instead of liberty, we're talking about security and all those freedoms that were celebrated are now under pressure in the name of security. What interests me is that these things don't happen overnight. 9/11 was the opportunity to fully realize radical conservative authoritarian agendas.

DUGDALE: Ah, but the vibrations were already out there in the public. They were willing to give up liberty for security.

HEBDIGE: This is the historical debate about whether America is a republic or a democracy. Direct democracy is in trouble. People have been saying that for a long time, that it's hollowed out, that no one votes, opinion polls have vulgarized it. So I think it's a crucial moment for understanding the drama of the American becoming.

DUGDALE: What is that "becoming"?

HEBDIGE: There's a definite movement towards empire. This is a very militarized society, or para-militarized in some ways. Just look at the metaphors - "war on drugs," "war on crime," etc. The war on terror is more metaphorical than Operation Iraqi Freedom because terror is very hard to actually define.

DUGDALE: You also need some form of amnesia, don't you? Didn't Bush himself, after the bombing of Tora Bora, turn to his team and say, "Well, what next?"

HEBDIGE: Like many people, I came to America because I was educated in American popular culture. Watching television as a kid, it was all American stuff. We listened to Elvis and watched Davy Crockett. America was a great escape fantasy for children. That's why Disney gets 'em young. And America has also been projecting its id onto the world since the early 20th century. Economic refugees don't just come here for the chance to earn minimum wage. It's also about being close to the heart of this military-industrial entertainment machine. But when you're in this machine, it looks very different. I think there have been many disturbing trends towards concentration of ownership of the media and the prohibition of certain viewpoints.

DUGDALE: Like banned play lists of songs during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I think it was Clear Channel. Certain songs couldn't be played because of their unhappy connotations.

HEBDIGE: I drove across America in 1998. I remember my tape deck blew coming into Vegas and I knew I'd have to listen to the radio all the way. The only program that I could get without fail, including in a place called Emblem, Wyoming, was Rush Limbaugh. Loud and clear. The fruited plain wakes up every morning to Rush. [extended spate of chuckles] This sort of thing is now structurally hardwired into the culture. Local radio has been taken over by Clear Channel. Though I was educated in British cultural studies and learned to be very skeptical of conspiracy theories, there's a degree of concentration and a felicitous complicity between the political economy and the FCC.

Then you get into these extraordinarily feudal kind of set-ups: Colin Powell's son sits on the FCC, George Bush's cousin who worked at Fox announced his victory. And we have a president who's the son of a president. So it looks very much like a Roman period where we're moving from a democracy into a Caesarian operation.

DUGDALE: One of the most lovely bits of your talk yesterday was when you gave a "guided tour" of Valencia, California. You used to live not far from there in Piru. I remember there were beautiful orange groves, beautiful breezes.

HEBDIGE: Piru is a small rural community about twenty miles from Valencia. It's like Shangri-La. The last wild river in Southern California goes through it. It has almost a self-conscious agrarian, pastoral connection to orange production; the attempt to create an Eden against modernity around the Spanish Mission mythology. It goes back to an earlier construction... I'm trying to resist the idea that it was totally authentic because that, too, was part of the dream. You can see that dream being negotiated in Chinatown (1974). D.W. Griffith shot Mary Pickford there for the film, Ramona (1912) The town is populated primarily by Chicanos and people further south who come up to work in the fields. Avocados, flowers, oranges. The other source of income is renting out the whole place to film crews. They want a small town circa 1890-1950. It's weird to sit and watch the films being made and recognize my town.

Valencia is much more the coming thing. It's a growing suburb which was one of the first planned communities by Victor Bruin who invented the first shopping mall. It's very clean, very hygienic, very homogenous, and growing at an extraordinary rate. And the town is really part of Northern LA. There's nothing in between. Eventually they'll build right through Piru and onward to the coast.

DUGDALE: You were showing us some slides of these statues that they have in Valencia. You mentioned that people are invited to take a vacation to see what their future will soon be, to witness this ideal.

HEBDIGE: Yeah, they're these weirdly macabre bronze statues of ordinary people shopping so you get this kind of zombified representation of what you're there to do. It's almost as if your face is being rubbed into your addiction to consumerism. This is the literal reification of shopping. There's no pretense that culture is anything but shopping. That's what it's become.

This is in a public space mind you, but there's about fifteen rules that have been written into a local ordinance including the prohibition of expressive, non-commercial conduct in front of retail outlets. Or bringing any animal, dead or alive, onto the property. Or loud music, or running, or provocative clothing. It's an extension of self-policing that goes on in the suburbs. If you live in Valencia, which I did for while, the Valencia Homeowner's Association stipulates the color of the drapes you can use. You get a nasty letter if your mailbox isn't painted properly.

DUGDALE: Perhaps the town fathers have been eavesdropping on the star chamber of lecherous octogenarians that run the Mormon Church. They have all kinds of crazy rules for the Tabernacle square.

HEBDIGE: [guffaw] In Valencia, though, it's because of real estate values. People want predictability, they want homogeneity, they want to live with their own, and that logic of real estate development seems to run everything. So if you have a culture that insists upon screening out all surprises and all contact with know, the holy dirt of's part of a will to hygiene. Which obviously has some pretty scary implications when you look at things like immigration.

DUGDALE: Or youth and its criminalization. Just look at the fallout from the shootings at Columbine.

HEBDIGE: I'm interested in three trends. One is the infantilization of adult culture. Last night I was watching Day of the Locust on television. I don't think that film could be made now because it's so adult, so skeptical, so cynical and critical. Now the prime target audience of film producers and screenwriters in Hollywood is a 13 year-old boy from the San Fernando Valley. That's what they're giving to the world, material that they think is appropriate for someone with very little experience. That is literally dumbing down the whole culture. That's why I'm interested in the Disney "effect." In some ways, it's charming, seductive, enjoyable, and light. At another level, though, it's so empowered now. It's a massive media corporation. They get children very young and train them.

This is not unconnected to a re-thinking of what citizenship means, replacing the consumer with the citizen. The other side of that is the criminalization of youth. Youths are continually seen as being at risk. All kinds of legislative measures and law-enforcement norms are in place to prevent kids from doing what their baby boomer parents did. There are curfews in place that seem to violate the civil rights of young people. At the same time, young people are subject to enormous pressure to perform well at school, to become model workers when they're young because it's a competitive ratrace, nobody's sure about the future. There's all this anxiety about getting your children into the best schools. It's lowering the ratrace to the elementary school level. You've got to come out fighting. [big guffaws all around]

DUGDALE: There's no room to fuck-up.

HEBDIGE: Absolutely not. So there's no art because art always requires the possibility of failure. It's all very passive-aggressive because the kids are constantly being presented as if they're potential Columbine killers or mack daddies and cartoon thugs. You can be executed in 17 states at the age of 16. This is the only country in the world that has that on the books. At the same time, you've got to look like you're 35 years old before they'll sell you a pack of cigarettes. The kids are being put into a terrible double-bind.

The third thing is pathologization of childhood where if children are mischievous or boisterous, they're diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and are slung on Ritalin until they snap out of it. Instead of the idea that human culture is a negotiated situation, an intersubjective negotiation of difference, it's as if there's some bureau dictating that this is the metabolism that the world must have. Everybody's got to be happy so you get this dream about homogenizing the human race, to get rid of turbulent character traits and metabolisms which used to produce art and conflict and happiness.

DUGDALE: Now it's just sloth and peevishness.

HEBDIGE: Right. We're really living through a time when there's some pretty vast engineering work going on in the psycho-social level.

DUGDALE: 200lb 13 year-olds sitting on a sofa stuffing their faces in front of the X Box.

HEBDIGE: Or being sent off to boot camp in Arizona. Zero tolerance. When I first came to this country, zero tolerance struck me as a strange motto or mantra for a Christian country. Why it matters, because I still like being in this country, is that it's not just America's business anymore. America always felt protected by two oceans. We're free. The nativist, isolationist, exceptionalist dream of America. I don't think that's viable anymore because America is now into some sort of imperial mode. It's going into places and taking over. So the rest of the world is interested in what's going on inside this country. Not just because they envy America or are curious. The world wants to know what's coming next. Look at South Africa. The LA police are training their police force and the FBI comes in to organize wars on drugs and crimes in the townships. Financial and social aid are contingent on agreeing to this kind of regulation of civil society, you're creating the conditions that America thinks are optimum for the development of capitalism.

That's why I was so interested in the death penalty. The series we had at UCSB was about America and the Death Penalty. What does that say about this country? If America is going to be the policeman of the world, then the American criminal justice system is going to start universalizing itself. The rest of the world is trying to work out the implications of this.

Television as it was Meant to Be

DUGDALE: What about the idea of "disgnosis" ?

HEBDIGE: It's a play on dictionary definitions. I found in a discussion by Henry Giroux on Disney and education a definition of Disney corporate culture to help cast members at Disneyworld integrate into the Disney ethos. So there's an invented definition that they use in their training literature. From that, I started thinking about what "disneyfication" means? Disnosis is taking that one step further. "Dis" is the opposite of "gnosis" which means knowledge. I wasn't trying to get at knowledge or false consciousness. It's the suppression of knowledge that's inconvenient. It doesn't help to think about Iraqi oil when you're driving an SUV as a soccer mom in Southern California. You're not even asked to think about it. The way the media are now controlled and organized and owned, you feel like you're in a sensory deprivation chamber. When you go outside the country, or onto the Internet to foreign newspapers, even though Britain was an ally, there's still a critical popular culture. They've still got an independent press. I don't blame the American people. They're not stupid. It's just that they're not given the materials to think critically. It's not quite false consciousness because people know subliminally that something's wrong or they're not being told stuff that would make life awkward. And they're complicit with it. That's part of the American Dream. You have to go sleep to dream. [guffaws on top of guffaws] That's what Old Europe does, thinks about history and conflict. We're entitled here to live your own life, to look after your family, and to be materially affluent if you do the right things.

DUGDALE: But do people really live their own lives? This country is absolutely nuts for celebrity. They aspire to live someone else's life.

HEBDIGE: Celebrity is a weird mutated surrogate for democracy. Celebrities act as avatars for everybody's fantasies. They're living their life for us. Reality television programs show the bathos, the banality of that destination, where everyone can be a celebrity if they're willing to humiliate themselves. It's like an S&M thing. You know that the person at the top is eventually going to be destroyed. It's a Bataillian form of sacrifice. Inflate and then destroy.

I was trying to make the connection between disgnosis and PT Barnum in my talk. His book, Arts of Deception, is an American entertainment model has a link to the European carnival and festival but went off on a slight angle, which has to do with playing with people's community, people enjoying being tricked and knowing they're being tricked by simulated disingenuousness. Being entertained as you're being reamed, being exploited. That's part of the fun.

DUGDALE: Let's talk for a moment about that oldie but goodie, race. You mentioned that America tries to forget its past in order to realize its future, its becoming. And Black America knows all the secrets of the past.

HEBDIGE: It goes back to this idea of erasure, of amnesia. I suppose amnesia is in time what erasure is in space. America's commitment to modernity and The Dream requires obliteration of the residue, what was there before. It's like those early photographs of Zionists in Israel where they airbrushed out the Palestinians. It's all about creating a point zero where things can be left behind in a can-do spirit.

DUGDALE: For example, I'm sure there's plenty of Americans who wish they could make disappear those postcards that people used to send to their friends showing what a great time they had at a lynching picnics. So many inconvenient things hanging around.

HEBDIGE: When you put Disney and race together, things get interesting. They're very concerned with creating an imaginary multiculturalism. It's not racist in the obvious sense. I don't want to get into a lament about Disney and fundamentalism. I don't want to reduce its complexity. In Southern California, you don't have buy into the gated community because there's a sort of architectural colonic going on, anything that gets away from what you could call metropolitan life. Anywhere that you might encounter otherness or difference. So you have this going on in real estate and the mass media and all the fantasies around genetic engineering, it's all the domain of the rich.

DUGDALE: Yes, you have this couple who lost their son and went to the Raelians to have him cloned.

HEBDIGE: The political right wing has been so adamant since the end of the Cold War that all restraints on the free market are incompatible with the public good. Who knows if there'll ever be an international regulation of genetic engineering. America doesn't seem to want to do any of that sort of thing now.

DUGDALE: Finally, I was struck by how taken you were with those episodes of The Mike Douglas Show in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted for a week.

HEBDIGE: Yoko Ono was particularly interested in doing these processual art pieces. So on Valentine's Day, she had Douglas ring up people live on air to say he loved them. Very playful and light. It was improvisational, it was messy, it was dangerous. They had on Ralph Nader, George Carlin, Nixon's attorney-general, and Jerry Rubin. It was a circus version of democratic debate. You couldn't have that now. The rules for political debate are so processed, so engineered, so there's no difference of opinion, no conflict, no passion, no drama. I like going back to those shows because you extrapolate a public culture that existed then, especially with all the division over the Vietnam War.

Now journalists can get fired if they try to "unembed" themselves in Iraq. Talk about infantalization of the function of journalism, which is to be independent, autonomous, and critical. Embed! It sounds like "putting them to bed." They were dependent on the military for everything so of course they identified with them. The other thing about Mike Douglas was how charming it was. It was risky. It was the opposite of reality TV, which is fundamentally a trade of getting on camera for the price of humiliation. It's this will to abject, to make the American population feel that they're stupid, that they're clowns. Sometimes they're dangerous clowns. What they can't be are reasoning individuals who can stand up and give an account of themselves and sometimes even refuse to answer questions.

A cultural critic and theorist, Dick Hebdige has published widely on youth subculture, contemporary music, art and design, and consumer and media culture. His books include: Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Methuen, 1979); Cut 'n' Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (Methuen, 1987); and Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (Routledge, Methuen, 1988). His current interests include the integration of autobiography and mixed media in critical writing and pedagogy. Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the University of Detroit Mercy. His fiction work includes I Couldn't Care Less (Black Moss Press 1995) and Requiem for Oblivion (Black Moss Press 1998). His current interests include existentialism, electronic music and the French New Wave.