Challenging Theory

Over the course of the semester, we have read some challenging texts which present theories of how society and culture work at certain times. Dick Hebdige, in particular, describes two different theories: Modernism and Postmodernism. His article is an attempt to answer the question: What is Postmodernism? As Hebdege himself, notes, however, his article answers this in many ways but is not definitive. He even speaks of the meandering nature of his article and its inability to provide a clear answer to his question:

“What follows is an attempt to re-present my own ambivalence vis-a-vis the prospect(s) of the Post: to engage with some of the issues raised in debates on postmodernism, to cruise the text of postmodernism without forfeiting the possibility of another place, other positions, other scenarios, different languages. In what I take to be the postmodern spirit, I shall try to reproduce on paper the flow and grain of television discourse switching back and forth between different channels.” (Hebdige 332-333)

Where would you challenge Hebdige’s view of Postmodernism or Modernism? Where do you think he needs to be more clear in his argument? What use (if at all) is his engagement with these themes? In your response to one or more of these questions, please provide evidence from his text. You are welcome to pose questions about his text as well and/or respond to the questions of a classmate, if you think they are substantive and need to be addressed.

15 thoughts on “Challenging Theory”

  1. After reading Dick Hebdige’s “Postmodernism and the ‘Politics’ of Style”, I found that there were times when Hebdige could have used more clarity in his arguments. Specifically when Hebdige tries to define postmodernism, he gives many definitions as opposed to just one coherent explanation of what postmodernism is. For instance, Hebdige begins by stating that postmodernism “is neither a homogeneous entity nor a consciously directed ‘movement'”, but it is “a space, a ‘condition'” (Hebdige 32). This gives the sense that postmodernism is not a tangible object, but rather a concept, which by nature is more complex to describe. Another very vague definition Hebdige gives of postmodernism is that “it means an end to a belief in coherence and continuity as givens, an end to the metaphysic of narrative closure”. This is merely describing what postmodernism is not, rather than giving a concrete definition. Therefore, Hebdige is very vague in his definition of postmodernism, and even though the concept is hard to grasp, he does not specifically define it well.

  2. For the most part I agree to an extent with Hebdige’s view of Postmodernism. He basically deems it as a “break with traditional cultural and aesthetic forms and experiences” (Hebdige 338). However, throughout the article, Hebdige doesn’t take a complete stance on whether or not Postmodernism is good or bad. While it is refreshing to see a break in the system every once in a while, at what point is the extension reaching too far? Is there a point that we must cap Postmodernism? I think so. Also when Hebdige basically infers that we can no longer see anything of value, “The intellectual, the critic, the artist can no longer claim to have privileged access to the Truth or even to knowledge, at least to the knowledge that counts,”(Hebdige 340) I again have to disagree with him. It’s not so much that we no longer have the ability to see, which is what this quote infers. Rather, I feel that over time, people have become desensitized and choose not to see things of value for what they are. Hebdige in this case would view Postmodernism as a sort of pseudo savior of society however, I disagree. While it does break from the system and draws attention which, is intrinsically in good intention, sometimes Postmodernism can go a bit too over the top and therefore be detrimental. Does anyone else see this?

  3. I found Hebdige’s idea of “mergers” and postmodernism’s role in merging together different aspects of culture really interesting. He says, “As we have seen, a number of immanent mergers have been identified: the coming together of different literary, televisual, and musical styles and genres, the mergers of subjects and objects, originals and copies, hosts and parasites, of ‘critical’ and ‘creative’ discourses, of criticism and paracriticism, fiction and metafiction” (Hebdige 334). Hebdige does a good job of citing examples of different aspects of culture that have lost their definition and have become combined with others during the period of postmodernism. However, I have to disagree with him when he begins to completely discount this merging of culture. He says, “Epistemologically, the shift towards these tropes is rooted in deconstructionism, in the abandonment of the pursuit of origins and the post-structuralist attack on the metaphysics of presence (Hebdige 334). I believe that Hebdige is too quick to use such harsh wording to condemn this one aspect of the direction postmodernism pushes culture in. I think he is looking at culture in a very one-sided and unchangeable view if he cites changes such as merging as “deconstructionism,” and that this leads his argument to falter here.

  4. If Hebdige were writing a paper on postmodernism for our seminar (or any other class, really), he would have failed the assignment twenty times over. His writing is awful–he’s wordy, he’s silly, he jumps around points instead of attacking them, and he otherwise avoids cohesion in favor of gimmicky and faux-academic style. The first superparagraph is a good example; if any of us were to devote an entire page to unnecessary examples of what he calls “Post,” we’d receive failing grades every time.

    So is it bad that I liked the article a lot? Hebdige walked the line between charming and obnoxious very well, and his amicable assholery was enough to keep me engaged and willing to challenge his points. Not knowing whether to love him or loathe him, I had to ignore the stupidity of phrases like “the petrified hegemony of an earlier corpus of ‘radical aesthetic’ strategies and proscriptions” (Hebdige 334) and actually consider my thoughts on the subject.

    Those thoughts are mostly amused, especially towards the passionate hatred of postmodernism, whether it actually exists or is simply a sophomoric label employed to frustrate academic conservatives. I personally love the idea of postmodernism, and I think that Hebdige’s definition (or non-definition) of the term was as charmingly postmodern as they come. Perhaps his tongue is partially in his cheek?

  5. Hebdige states that according to Jean Francois Lyotard, Postmodernism means that “it is no longer appropriate to employ the metaphor of the ‘avant-garde’ as if modern artists were soldiers fighting on the borders of knowledge and the visible.” (Hebdige 333) Personally I believe that in modernism this metaphor can still be applied to Postmodernism. When pieces of art, fashion, or music are considered avant-garde people are breaking traditional notions of how things should be. They also strive to get people to think of what they are currently overlooking in society. People look to those who are avant-garde as the bellwethers of the future. Hebdige goes on to say that there is “the crisis of the avant-garde as idea and as institution.” (Hebdige 333) I believe that this “crisis” has been caused by the higher education levels in the Postmodern age. Now, everyone is able to present their own ideas on the future in any way they please. People are now eager to group new radical ideas (most are rehashed older ideas) as avant-garde because mass media has made the word a part of the vernacular. True avant-garde works, are still “fighting on the border of knowledge of the visible” and shall continue to do so.

  6. I overall agree with Hebdige’s understanding of Postmodernism as a deconstruction of the previously accepted ideas that defined Modernism. However, I disagree with the way in which he extends his definition to human nature. He writes, “Such a dispersion of sense might lead to a loosening of the bonds that bind us to the single and the singular track, to a paranoid obsession with certitude and fixed and single destinations” (339). Although Postmodernism certainly has an impact on the things with which we surround ourselves, i.e. art, music, literature, architecture, even critical thinking about the world, I don’t believe that a movement can have such a powerful influence on the way we function as human beings. Granted, he implies that it “might” happen, but since Postmodernism is such a novel movement, speculation about where is might lead is inevitable. In any case, trying to extend Postmodernism to how we conduct ourselves, in his mind, with “a paranoid obsession with certitude and fixed and single destinations,” seems like a stretch to me. I don’t think that just because I read Postmodern novels and analyze Postmodern architecture means that I will suddenly be more inclined to stray from the “single and the singular track.”

    However, now that I think about it, I would like to play devil’s advocate here. When we surround ourselves with Postmodernist elements, they have the potential to change the way we think. I might be more inclined toward “the single and singular track” but if I allow the Postmodernist concept of breaking away from the unilateral norm to dictate how I live my life and make decisions as well, then I might agree with Hebdige’s statement. But then again, I really dislike Postmodernism (as well as Modern art) so probably not.

  7. In Dick Hebdige’s article “Postmodernism and the ‘Politics’ of Style,” I find a lot to take issue with. Right off the bat, I find it difficult to take anything he says very seriously. Why? Because while his essay is supposed to be about postmodernism, he doesn’t anywhere in the entire article give a clear definition of what exactly postmodernism is. The closest he comes is a list of almost a page in length that describes things that are postmodern. But there are so many, it still remains unclear as to what exactly he thinks it is. This is a really big problem for me, since Hebdige does an awful job of reassuring me he actually knows what he’s talking about. In fact, not once but twice on page 337 he says that “For the word postmodernism, if it signifies at all,” and “If postmodernism means anything at all.” (Hebdige 337) I think the ideas that he presents in the article are interesting for sure, but incredibly vague and not very concrete. If he were to write this essay again, maybe he could start by making it clear that he knows what he’s talking about, and then I may take his work a little more seriously.

  8. Hebdige offers a fairly realistic view of Postmodernism, however one aspect of his definition that I do not agree with is his discussion on critique. Hebdige offers the idea that postmodernism is cluttered with too much criticism and critique, and therefore what these people are saying isn’t always true or genuine. He believes that the critiques are composed of “countless tiny heads” who learn to think like those “trapped in declining institutions” (Hebdige 332). I understand that Hebdige is worried about how genuine the critiques are, however I do not think that it is healthy to comment on what critiques are offering. If we begin to criticize the opinions of critiques then we take away from their right to give us their true opinions on specific works.

  9. Dick Hebdige presents his view on the definition of Postmodernism in his text, “A Report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the ‘Politics’ of Style.” Hebdige’s definition, I feel, can be best described as the loss of authoritative control and/or opinion; the idea that society as a whole has become more able to accept the value of the individual rather than the value of the whole. It is a, “loss of totality, a necessary and therapeutic loss of wholeness” (Hebdige, 337). Hebdige stating that this loss of wholeness is necessary proves his favor towards a society with which there is no criticism, or idea of “high” or “low” culture, and that every individual has the ability to make that decision for themselves. I must disagree with him for his point of view for the simple fact that it is beneficial for a society to have some authority or some institutions that advise them what they feel is “high” and “low” culture. Without criticism or authority, society would be functioning in an almost anarchist form. I disagree with Hebdige’s opinion that society benefits from the vanishing of totality and criticism because that totality and criticism gives the public opinion, it provides disagreement, agreement, and sometimes inspiration.

  10. Like many of the rest of you, I agree that Hebdige is rather unclear about his definition of postmodern. I fully agree with his assertion that postmodernism is “a break with traditional cultural and aesthetic forms and experiences: the break, for instance, with traditional notions of authorship and originality” (Hebdige 38), as it’s more or less rejecting modernism. Howvever, he rants on for many-a page about his vague definition of postmodernism, throwing out things every which way. I think that maybe he could have reorganized his essay better and perhaps that would have made his argument stronger.

  11. In Hebdige’s “A Report of the Western Front: Postmodernism and the ‘Politics’ of Style”, he asserts what he believes is the separation between modernism and postmodernism. The main idea that I gathered from his long-winded argument is that postmodernism represents the loss of dominating figures within a society that mandate what is considered high, low, popular, and mass culture. I do not agree with this claim because everything in contemporary literature, art, and architecture, can still be recognized as one of these cultures. If his argument were to be proven true, then there would be one chaotic culture that existed in the world where nobody was able to distinguish cultural borders. I do believe a change existed that brings us to the term “postmodernism”, but there was no decline in the ability to determine what kind of culture certain ideas represent.

  12. I think if Hebdige is trying to prove that a “buzzword” such as “postmodern” is not meaningless if it is defined so broadly, he does a very poor job. I think Ben is correct in saying that he is too passive when examining this term, and is too wordy in his attempted explanation. I think that when “postmodern” can describe anything from “the decor of a room” to “a proliferation of surfaces”, there is a problem: “postmodern” needs to be specific.
    The reason I say this is that “postmodern” can be used in many contexts, and can have different meanings for each individual setting. For example, “postmodern” as a description of a post-Hitler idea differs drastically from the use of “postmodern” as a style of organization or a departure from “old” ways. You simply can’t use the same term to describe such different concepts; it is too broad.
    If Hebdige would simply be more concise and condense his points into smaller statements that supported the uselessness of “postmodern” as a broadly descriptive term, I would agree with him. Unfortunately, we don’t share the same views…

  13. Despite the fact that much of Dick Hebdige’s argument on postmodernism in “Postmodernism and the ‘Politics’ of Style” is often unclear, I did appreciate his idea that the “blurrings, mergers” of production and consumption of the postmodern have helped bring to an end the “hierarchies” of different cultures (pop, mass, high, low, etc.). I wholeheartedly agree with this point, since, as we have discussed in class, things like pop culture and mass culture in music and movies seem to infiltrate into everyone’s lives, disregarding social or cultural differences. His idea that the postmodern has also made room for forms of art that are not centered around the “White, male author” (334) is also true, for art centered on things such as women or third-world cultures is much more accepted now. However, he then describes this as something “rooted in deconstructionalism”, which I do not agree with, and which also contradicts his previous argument that the postmodern is a good thing. Just because something is new or different from the norm, which is what he says the postmodern is, does not mean that it can’t be appreciated. Despite Hebdige’s argument that the postmodern is something good, it comes across that he does not actually appreciate its results, which is one of the primary things wrong with his definition of it.

  14. I found “Postmodernism and the Politics of Style” really hard to get though Hebdige failed to ever give the reader a real definition of postmodernism. The beginning of the essay is Hebdige attempting to define postmodernism by showing just how many ways he can define it. After giving us the longest list ever, he explains that this doesn’t just mean that there’s no way to define it, it means that “people with conflicting interests and opinions feel that there is something sufficiently important at stake ere to be worth struggling and arguing over” (p.332). It’s such an interesting concept that there is something important at stake but Hebdige never explains what it is.

  15. Like Lydia, I too believed that Hebdige works around giving a straight definition on what postmodernism truly is. At no point does he seem to have a firm grasp on what it is. Sure, he gives different definitions and insights, but never straight out states Postmodernism is this..And I also undrstand that postmodernism is a tough concept to understand as a whole, but from what he is saying I was not able to better understand it, say to a level I would otherwise. Hebdige is able to describe certain aspects to Postmodernism but never defines it and I found this to be a problem that stuck out to me.

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