On Flying Ducks and The Risks of Writing: An Interview with Dick Hebdige
History of design criticism
The media theorist and sociologist Dick Hebdige grew up in what he calls “the non-gentrified end” of Fulham. When he moved to Birmingham to study English Literature, he wrote a dissertation about the ethnography of the London pubs he had frequented as a teenager. This caught the attention of cultural theorist Stuart Hall at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, where Hebdige did his MA. In 1979, shortly after graduating, his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style was published by Methuen. Hebdige’s close reading of the nuances of subcultural style in relation to consumption and insubordination, his portrait of punk as predominantly racially defined rather than class based, and his bricolage approach to theory, made a major contribution to the emerging field of cultural studies. When I joined the History of Design program at RCA/V&A in 1994, it was still a key text, and its lens still relevant for my own study of 1960s mod culture.
I have always been fascinated by Hebdige’s approach to writing which draws from history, theory, and people in pubs in equal measure. In 2011, I traveled to his weekend cabin in the desert near Joshua Tree to interview him for my PhD research into design criticism in 1980s London.
The interview turned into a long conversation which extended from the political to the intensely personal. As is often the case, only a sentence or two of the interview made it into the final book. So here are some longer excerpts of our conversation.
Alice Twemlow: In the 1980s you lived in Dalston in London. What did you do for work then?
Dick Hebdige: I started teaching in 1974 for art schools. I was teaching General Studies, in what graphic designers used to call the “Department of Country Dancing,” or the “Department of Silly Things.” It was a great thing to do if you wanted to write because, in the tradition of British art schools, it was total bohemian chaos. I actually managed to do academic, critical writing, without having to work at a university.
Around 1984, I went to Goldsmiths College, and taught in the Department of Communications. Here, again, I was trying to get away from theory, from being defined as a theorist. I always liked to work with materials, objects and practices—and with artists. I liked being in the shadow of practice.
AT: In the 80s you wrote about the Habitat catalogue as a publication where lifestyle was prescribed like medicine. To what extent you were looking at design’s role in this lifestyle trend as subject matter for critique?
I was seeing design, the beginnings of corporate culture and branding, in the context of Thatcherism, and a breaking down of autonomous working class culture.
DH: I was seeing design, the beginnings of corporate culture and branding, in the context of Thatcherism, and a breaking down of autonomous working class culture. Thatcher was the agent in the transformation of British culture, and design served itself up as a part of the makeover. The mission was accomplished through consumption and fetishization of a certain aesthetic. At the time in Britain, an interest in style watching was beginning. There was this definite sense that culture was shifting. The old ways of discussing culture and media just didn’t make sense anymore. I guess this fetishization of design just moved into the vacuum that was left.
AT: To be clear, by “the old ways of discussing culture,” you mean high culture, the arts?
DH: Yeah, and there was a binarization. Either you were a fan of design and style, or you were going to be rejecting it. I wanted to try to create different discourses in response to this cultural shift, which were neither, nor. Discuss it, but not buy into it.
AT: In that respect did you see yourself as a critic?
DH: I guess I did. I thought my duty was to defend something…
AT: Defending authenticity? In the face of …
DH: Of infatuationism. There was a war, a culture war. On the other hand, I had been fascinated with fashion since I was a kid, that kind of London mod thing—infatuation through the roof.
AT: I think that’s part of the inherent paradox for design critics isn’t it? They’re fascinated enough by design to be close to it, but then they need enough critical distance to be skeptical.
DH: I wrote about design in part because Subculture was very fixated on style. Once I’d written one thing, I was invited to do more. I think also, in the 80s, it was the design decade…
AT: So you couldn’t help but deal with it?
DH: Yeah, kind of. That’s kind of how the world got screwed together, like IKEA furniture. There’s guilt involved in enjoying design.
There’s guilt involved in enjoying design.
AT: So you were writing for publications such as Blueprint and Block. Did any of them pay?
DH: Blueprint paid, but not a lot. But I wrote because I wanted to. I wanted to be a public intellectual.
AT: Here and there, you were brushing with design criticism. Did you see yourself as directing this criticism towards the design profession?
DH: Not really. I used to like hanging out with designers; I was always interested and intrigued. But when it was circulating in the social—these kind of civilizing missions where they wanted to get rid of the flying ducks on peoples’ walls—that’s the part I didn’t like.
…they wanted to get rid of the flying ducks on peoples’ walls—that’s the part I didn’t like.
AT: What would be the forms through which you resisted that Conranization, then, as a critic?
DH: I don’t know if criticism is just about resistance. After Subculture, I felt that emphasis on resistance seemed inadequate. You can’t get away from the market. And, as I said, I felt ambivalent about it because I was always uneasy, uncomfortable with the ethical indication.
AT: So what is criticism about?
DH: It’s about articulation. About creating bridges and orchestrating transitions. Creating and imagining another way of moving forward.
AT: What do you mean by “orchestrating transitions”?
DH: Subculture came out in 1979, and was probably manuscripted in early ’78, and Punk certainly wasn’t played out when I was writing about it. So when I was describing a more racially, more ethnically self-conscious Punk, I was pushing for something that didn’t yet exist. It’s a bit like marketing, really. You’re making a selection. And if you do it persuasively, and if people identify with that, then you shift things.
AT: There’s a piece of yours I’d like to discuss in particular. “Report on the Western Front.” I think it’s a very strange, but fantastic piece of writing. Sort of a collage.
DH: Do you want to know the backstory of this one? I’d just been hospitalized. I had a psychotic episode.
And then I jumped out a window, first floor, and ran off shouting. I thought I was John the Baptist. The police found me in a giant plastic shoe.
DH: I was writing an essay on masculinity for New Socialist magazine. And I was working at the time in a small college town, I was teaching art theory or whatever. And I was writing this thing and I just got stuck. I think that through writing about my masculine construction I had an identity crisis. It was a bit like The Shining. I didn’t sleep for days. I did automatic writing. And then I jumped out a window, first floor, and ran off shouting. I thought I was John the Baptist. The police found me in a giant plastic shoe. It was behind the college, where the carnival stored all their stuff. It was inside this giant boot. And it’s got this cross on it, with light bulbs and I thought I was on the cross.
AT: What happened after that?
DH: I got committed to the hospital, and my girlfriend came to get me out. Eventually I came back to London and to myself. I was lucky; I think I was a bit touch and go. Back in those days the drugs were pretty primitive. I was broken, or at least changed. And my writing changed too.
It tended to be the younger people who were able to integrate their actual experience into academic dialect. But really, after this episode, I had no choice. I think that’s why “Report from the Western Front” ended up being an interesting piece. After the breakdown, I just couldn’t go on inhabiting ordinary textual formats. I wanted to find a way of writing that was looser. More poetic. More like fiction. I had always felt very strongly, maybe it’s a romantic thing, not to murder the madman, but to let it come out in the writing.
AT: That’s kind of incredible then. So every time you came back to write in that way, it was such a risk you were taking…
DH: Don’t you find writing risky?
AT: Yes, in terms of being vulnerable; but not to the extent you’re talking about, I don’t think.
DH: I was trying to go in there and do it differently, and come out in a different way. Like you go into the underworld. And to me that’s what writing is—you enter into this other dimension. And it is always a risk and an adventure. I don’t know what else I could do. I’ve got to be creative, have a means for expression, and writing’s it.
AT: What happened to the piece about masculinity you were writing when you lost it?
DH: I’ve still got the text. It’s just nonsense. The whole page is like “men, men, men.” And Thatcher’s in it, a lot.
AT: What else is going on in “Report from the Western Front” apart from you wanting to approximate your experience of a mental breakdown in the writing itself…
DH: I was also running with a conjectural paradigm that Carlo Ginzburg wrote about in the article “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Methods.” He makes a case that Morelli’s art connoisseurship is based around noticing neglected details. Freud had actually read him, so you can say that he based the whole notion of psychoanalysis as a method on looking at the negative space of something. And then this connection to Sherlock Holmes—detective work as inferring. And then he ties that to tracking Mesopotamian divination, a kind of practical knowledge, which for millennia had been handed down. Anyway, I read this article in 1980 and it just blew my mind. I always wanted to write stuff that was like that—readable but dense.
AT: Speaking of dense, there is a 270-word sentence in “Report from the Western Front.” It’s where you’re listing out all the attributes of Post-Modernism…
DH: Have you ever read Hiding in the Light?
AT: Yes. But I suppose I’m most interested in the articles and how they existed in the media at the same time.
In the early 1980s, after the publication of Subcultures, I was suddenly pulled out of this very slack, very provincial, bohemian art school life. And I’m being flown to conferences, like the 20th century studies conferences with people like Foucault.
DH: What I publish is almost like documentation. In the early 1980s, after the publication of Subcultures, I was suddenly pulled out of this very slack, very provincial, bohemian art school life. And I’m being flown to conferences, like the 20th century studies conferences with people like Foucault. And I was only in my late 20s. But rather than giving a paper—I always said, the postman should deliver the paper—I would do these live performances, presenting things in a more narrative way. It’s like DJ-ing. Cutting a mix. Stitching things together. Deleuzian in a way. How do you talk through something rather than about it?
AT: What type of response did you get to that?
DH: Back in those days, it was always like parting the Red Sea—people either loved it or hated it.
AT: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
DH: English was the one thing I just had a knack for. It made sense to stick with it. I also wanted to get out of Fulham where I grew up. My dad was a carpenter; in the end he was making artificial legs. My mother was an upholstress. Both very very intelligent people. But both left school at 14.
AT: What led you to Birmingham?
DH: I didn’t get a lot of advice, but someone said, apply to Cambridge. But I already saw myself as very urban at that point. So I figured, Birmingham was the second biggest city—and it was the only university that accepted me.
AT: So it wasn’t that you’d heard about the Cultural Studies course?
DH: No, no, I just went there. I did English and then in the third year there was this option to do Cultural Studies, as an elective. Stuart Hall was teaching it. I had done a dissertation on the ethnography of pubs in Fulham. He really liked it.
AT: Which writers were you reading?
DH: I actually liked and still like Roland Barthes. I think the way he writes, the sensibility, is beautiful. He has a balance between perversity and delicacy, which is quite unusual.
AT: What do you mean by “perversity?”
DH: He talked about doing what you’re not supposed to do. Finding an indirect way into something. Prior to all that desire stuff.
AT: And “delicacy” is leaving stuff out?
DH: He has this incredible grace. He wants to evacuate the self, death of the author. And he achieves it again and again. It’s like Benjamin, a sort of spiritual practice. I think he had to do it to stay alive. So it was necessary for him to write and endure. Not giving up, not renouncing what you said before, but coming at it from a different angle. For him, language really was key to his existence.
I also relate to the way Barthes cruised a lot of different disciplines, looking for the signifiers.
AT: Do you think design criticism in that period was a kind of pathologizing practice?
DH: The thing about the Ginsberg text is that he connects it to the medical paradigm. Freud trained as a doctor. So looking at the body, doing a diagnosis based on observation. That model of critique really is based on symptoms. Symptomatic readings. In the end it’s all determined by psychoanalysis.