British skinheads wear cropped hair and overalls, in stylized representation of their Working-class fathers. This is an example of what Roland Barthes calls signification: the borrowed use of signs as an appearance, re- ferring to a reality elsewhere. A British punk girl may wear a swastika, not in affirmation of Nazism but as a revolt against the significations taken for granted by her parents. This, according to Dick Hebdige, is an exam- ple of what Barthes calls signifiance. "Punk style," he argues, "is in a constant state 'of assemblage, of flux." It "invites the reader to 'slip into' signifiance, to lose the sense of direction, the direction of sense" (p. 126).
Hebdige's book examines punk, reggae, "Teds'"' mark I (1950s) and mark II (1970s), mods, rockers, skinheads, and other British youth subcultures. His theoretical approach is informed by literary criticism (Richard Hog- gart and Raymond Williams), Marxist theories of ideology (Althusser, Brecht, Gramsci, and Lefebvre), American subcultural sociology (William F. Whyte and Albert Cohen), and French structuralism (Barthes, Kristeva, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan), each of whose ideas is briefly discussed. This configuration of topics and theories is representative of the recent concerns of Birm- ingham University's Centre for Contempo- rary Cultural Studies, of which Hebdige was a member when it was directed by Stuart Hall. Hall argues that "each subculture represents a different handling of the 'raw material of social . . . existence'" (p. 80). Hebdige analyzes styles of clothing, music, and speech and shows how, in general, these provide imagi- nary identifications for the groups who adopt them. Thus, skinhead subculture refers- to the traditional, albeit romanticized, lifestyle of the British working class; "Teddy-boy" style evokes an idealized Edwardian dandyism; Rastafarian reggae, a utopian Ethiopia.
Punk, however, is unlike the others. It is anti-utopian. Its closest neighbor is reggae, with which it is "connected at a deep structural level" (p. 29). Hebdige traces the stylistic similarities between white punk and black reggae subcultures, showing that their common underlying meaning is a rejection of British national symbolism. But whereas young blacks venerate an alternative sym- bolism of their own, punks are purely nega- tive. Their attitudes, and practices, resemble those of Dadaism, Surrealism, and Jean Genet.
Unfortunately, Hebdige idealizes the punks. His claim that they embody "signifiance," while all around are trapped in 'signification," tends to impoverish this distinction. A more critical approach would be to discriminate utopian from anti-utopian elements within punk speech, lyrics, and dress itself to reveal contradictions in the style.
Hebdige implies that punk style defies analysis. It "can challenge the glib assertions of sociologists no matter how radicar' (p. 121). However, his central argument, that punk and other white subcultural styles can be under- stood only as part of a dialectic with their black counterparts, is not new to sociology. Charles Keil (Urban Blues) argued in 1966 that whites constantly appropriate elements of black style for themselves, so blacks must in- novate to reaffirm their separate identity. The exclusivism of the Black Muslims, in his ac- count, precisely parallels that of the Rastafa- rians, as portrayed by Hebdige.
Keil, like Paul Hoch (White Hero, Black Beast, 1979), also stresses the definition of sexuality as crucial both to subcultural style and to the way style expresses race relations. This is a curious omission from the present book, especially given punk band names like "Sex Pistols," "Sex Boys," and the first punk venue, "a shop called Sex" (p. 27).
Though this book does not fully resolve the relationships between style and subculture, or between semiotics and sociology, it is a well- illustrated introduction to the issues.