PRINT October 1997


Rethinking the Youth Question

THE ACADEMIC ENTERPRISE that goes by the name of cultural studies is by now a global phenomenon. Its fortunes indeed have paralleled the transnational expansion of the entertainment industries from which its exponents draw so much of their material for interpretation, adopting as well the unargued assumption of success over “sunset” counterparts in the world marketplace, with university colleagues who still find value in some refined and disinterested standards of art generally playing the analogous part of the latter. Traditional criteria of distinction, it is confidently asserted when not simply assumed, dissolve before the synergies increasingly effected between books, television, films, pop music, software, and leisure products; sheer currency and contemporaneity become the chief criteria of interest, leading one unimpressed commentator to call cultural studies “the vanguard party of the media elite.”

Belatedly and vaguely, at least in America, has come an awareness that this phenomenon gained its name and original identity in Great Britain some decades ago and under circumstances that were somehow more political than the milieu of the academy and upmarket media journalism where it currently flourishes. The best informed will link the field with the name of Stuart Hall, the sociologist more recently and rightly celebrated for his contributions to the theory and practice of multiculturalism. For some years from 1969 on, Hall headed a unit at Birmingham University called the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (hence the name), which was attempting to pick up the pieces for a Labour Left embittered by the betrayals of the Wilson government and, more profoundly, sensing the end of postwar full employment and the coming decline of the masculine world of industrial work that had always been at the heart of the movement. Displaced and unemployable youth, ethnic minorities, and working-class women traditionally confined to domestic work all had somehow to be recognized and included within a credible renewal of socialist argument.

None of these constituencies had proven to be reachable either through old-style trade unionism or the highly theoreticized activities of the New Left in Britain during the ’60s. What sort of voice, then, did these other subordinated groups possess, given that the complexities of their lives exceeded or confounded both the traditional markers of social class and the outlook of privileged student protesters? If messages of dissent were there, the means to decipher them as some reflective intellectual idiom were not, despite the fact that Hall and his colleagues possessed highly developed skills in interpretation.

In the end, it took a visitor to the center, an outsider without academic standing, to crack the code. Phil Cohen had been working for several years as an organizer (and participant) in the London Street Commune, a floating effort to lend coherence to the needs and legal rights of the dropouts and homeless youth clustered around Piccadilly Circus. Retreating occasionally from the wear and tear of this occupation to the quiet of the British Library, he developed a short essay representing his own synthesis of the youth-culture problem, and this he brought to one of Hall’s seminars at the start of the ’70s. His chief professional concern lay with predominately male, working-class youth, caught in the ambiguous stage between the education system that they had left early on and the adult world of work (which, increasingly, many would never enter). The established sociology of adolescence—divided between a dreary empiricism and thinly rationalized mythologies about universal rites of passage—was no help at all; his response was to take over the standard descriptive term “subculture” and use it to identify the imaginary set of relations effected by any displaced group, chiefly the young, toward its parent culture.

Cohen’s main exhibits were a visual snapshot of the endlessly permutating signs of group belonging that he observed from his home in the East End of London. No one before him had seen past the stereotypes of adolescent deviance even to consider that the menacing particulars of the original skinhead style—the boots and braces, the shaved scalps and selective racial marauding—might reward the sort of interpretation practiced by art-historical iconographers.

What Cohen found was a precisely coded response to changes in the city’s economy and land use that had eroded beyond recovery the neighborhood life that the skinheads’ parents had known. Where the mods of the ’60s had articulated, through sharp Italian-style suits and gleaming Vespas, an imaginary relation to the closed option of upward mobility, the skinheads turned around and fashioned an equally imaginary relation to the downward option of rough manual labor, an identity that had become equally inaccessible following the shutting down of East End’s docks, industries, and local workshops.

An imaginary belonging to a lost local culture, a refusal to assent to fraudulent substitutes for community, figured in the dress, speech, and rituals of enforced idleness that so alarmed outsiders. Though sensitivity to these messages in no way excused the racism, ignorance, and apathy on view, what Cohen decoded at least amounted to an eloquence in choices of style and imagery. Battered and marginalized by economic rationalizations, the working-class community could only be recovered as an imaginary solution in the realm of style, a kind of sympathetic magic limited to the temporary, inherently ambiguous phase of “youth.”

Until this year, Cohen’s paper remained on the furthest fringe of the public domain, in the cheaply printed pages of the center’s occasional journal Working Papers, where it appeared in 1972. Only those with access to extremely good research libraries had a chance to recover its decisive intervention in full—and to gauge how much its promise might lay unfulfilled. Now that oversight has been corrected with the republication of the essay in Britain as part of a collection of Cohen’s writings, Rethinking the Youth Question: Education, Labour and Cultural Studies (London: Macmillan, 1997). In a new preface to “Subcultural Conflict,” Cohen writes, laconically, about what happened after its initial publication: “Unknown to me, since I remained in youth and community work and quite out of touch with developments in academic circles, the paper was taken up by a group at the Centre as the basis of an extended theoretical study of youth cultures and ‘rituals of resistance’.” That claim is utterly accurate and all too modestly stated, as is Cohen’s regret that “the initial project of anchoring subcultural analysis to an ethnographic study of structural change impacting on local labour histories or urban geographies was not properly followed through.”

Cohen had used youth styles to render a complex and difficult social impasse more vivid; those in the academy who seized on his insights (and thus gave cultural studies its essential impetus) wanted to use them as a solution to a different type of impasse. For some, youth styles revealed themselves to be the romantically vivid defiance of the status quo that eluded both the Labour movement and dissenting intellectuals alike: where Cohen had recognized pathos in imaginary solutions to real problems, his followers felt able to theorize “resistance” in activities that in fact left oppressive relations within the British working class entirely untouched. His acute attention to the shift on the part of his subjects from a blocked facility in language to high competence in nonverbal discrimination was likewise a godsend to those wanting to infuse dry academic theory with the perceived glamour of the street. Cohen had observed that choices in available pop-music categories were as amenable to analysis as were markers of visual style (e.g., the skinheads’ paradoxical preference for Jamaican music as a symbolic accompaniment to anti-Asian violence); but it proved to be a short step from this kind of grounded interpretation to indulging with the same semiology the career moves of style entrepreneurs like David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren, who established the ongoing—and highly profitable—marriage between fashion and music that continues to distinguish British products in the international marketplace. (In this self-defeating enterprise, the object of interpretation has invariably anticipated and outdistanced the interpreter.) The accolade of “resistance” migrated to entirely normal, if colorful fan behavior. As codified in 1979 by Dick Hebdige in his short book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (and beautifully timed to ride the backwash of punk), Cohen’s idea of the Subcultural Imaginary was transformed into a how-to manual for those who wished to export and duplicate the success of Britain’s pop machine.

All of this, as Cohen notes without apparent rancor or regret, left him behind; by 1975 he was deeply immersed in youth work on a rough north London public-housing estate (addressed in two essays in the collection), and he has continued to work in educational research particularly addressing conditions of endemic unemployment and racism faced by urban adolescents in the UK. Others sharing that pursuit form his primary audience, but there are many rewards throughout the collection for a much wider readership. In the remarkable essay “The Writing on the Walls,” written in 1971 and previously unpublished, he recounts his experiences in the London Street Commune around its occupation of an unused mansion in Picadilly, an action that brought down the full wrath of the police and conservative press; what gives the essay lasting import is his ability simultaneously to theorize—in a way that anticipates much later thinking in architecture and social art history—the competing claims to the street in the spectacular centers of the modern metropolis. Overall, Rethinking the Youth Question demands attention for its implicit dissent from the media-saturated condition of the new establishment in cultural studies. Let us hope it finds an American publisher soon.

Thomas Crow is the Robert Lehman Professor of History of Art at Yale University and a contributing editor of Artforum.