I really enjoyed reading the essay by Dick Hebdige, The Bottom Line on Planet One.
As I read through it I kept wondering if the reasons I agreed with so many of his assertions about Planet Two is because I’m now heading into middle age. Would I have found him so agreeable if I were more like one of his students, “living in the pagan, post modern world”? (1999:100) I think I may have attempted living there for a time but I didn’t grow up in England as that world emerged. So it never really made any sense to me, even when I was at university and playing the role of ‘student’ with such aplomb. Perhaps I live up to the notion that we become more conservative the older we get. My poor old Conservative father (late) would disagree about me being conservative with either a small or large C. “Where did I go wrong? How did I produce such a Troskyite!” he would bemoan, even though I was no-where near as politically minded on any side of the political spectrum as I am now, since I didn’t know anything about English politics. In fact, I had simply disagreed with him about Thatcher being the most marvellous thing ever – he truly thought that, and seemed desperately threatened that I didn’t.
I remember very clearly coming here from South Africa first in 1984 for a two week holiday and then in 1986 for good when I was 16. It was a really strange experience. I was in a state of culture-shock for years afterwards. I remember how several aspects of being in this country made me feel weird. One of the main things was something about the advertising that I can’t quite put my finger on. Was it because there was so much more of it? I’m not sure. Was it because the billboards were not sun-bleached so the colours were much brighter or bolder? Perhaps. Were the billboards bigger? I don’t think so. But even the packaging was different; more vibrant and brighter. Packets of chewing gum suddenly seemed strange and alien. As did all the chocolate bars, sweets and crisps. Along with the television, which was on all day; there was so much of it. I recall Baker Street, for that is where I lived briefly with my grandmother, as somewhere covered in billboards, with massive faces looking down at me and giant sized things to eat, as well as huge letters spelling out words and names. To borrow a cliché it really was an assault on the senses.
I’m not sure why this is relevant but I was constantly reminded of that experience as I read through the essay. The description of World Two is perhaps the reason. The paradigm epitomised by The Face was the England I came to and it was so far removed from anything I had ever experienced before, and even though I had grown up in a household that claimed to be liberal, more than a little avant-garde, and progressive, the truth is both of my parents existed firmly in World One, and had no idea about World 2. In fact, both often said that England had changed beyond recognition whilst they were away in SA for 14 and 16 years respectively. The England they left at the end of the 60s was still dominated by the very tail-end of World One and the England they returned to felt thoroughly of World Two, as described by Hebdige.
I think one of the most true things I have read in all of the fascinating writings I’ve been reading lately is Hebdige’s point that Godard, via his statement “This is not a just image. This is just an image”, “…made the future safe for the The Face, the political, ideological and aesthetic roots of which lie as much in the 1960s, in Mod, Pop Art and the myth of the metropolis and Situationism as in Mrs Thatchers 1980s“. (1999:106) (Italics mine)
The world my parents came back to, and the one I entered for the first time as a sentient being (I was 6 weeks old when we had left England in ’71) was driven by whatever it was I saw and didn’t recognise in those billboard adverts on Baker Street, and on the packaging of snacks, and covering the food all along the aisles of Marks and Spencer’s. “The construction of the ‘popular'” which, as Hebdige describes, was built on “notions of fair play, decency, egalitarianism and natural justice”(1999:120) had been replaced by something else, and my father never found a way to adjust to the new World. He was a comedian and despite the changed environment, he carried on doing his act as always, which he had put together in the England of the ’60s, and adjusted in the SA of the 70s (culturally thirty years behind at the very least). It became less and less relevant.
“The Face reflects, defines and focuses the concerns of a significant minority of style and image conscious people who are not, on the whole, much interested in party politics, authorised versions of the past, and outmoded notions of community”. (1999:121) The progression towards a more socially democratic world has of course been positive. But something has also gone awry. There is now a hardness to people, a lacking. I’m not sure there was ever the rose-tinted version of reality that people who lived prior to the 60s sometimes tell us about, or the television documentaries often try to convince us of. But the enormous social shifts we’ve witnessed throughout these last decades may have resulted in the proverbial baby being thrown out with the bath water. Or maybe I just see the new World a little through my dead dad’s eyes; viewing it with some level of confusion about where or how to exist in it.
It is strange that my father felt Thatcher was such a positive force, when as Hebdige says, she, or rather, the evolutionary social changes her name and reputation embody, were in fact just as responsible for the paradigm shifts described in his essay, and which my father found so difficult to adjust to, as the more subversive and anarchic elements were. The legacy from that era is profound, although I do believe that societal tectonic movements were rumbling long before Thatcher arrived on the scene.
I will answer the questions in the course folder in my next blog post, but wanted to write this down as it had been on my mind. Hebdige’s essay ends with a quote from his student’s work by John Cowper Powys. In it we are told that people will always love, hate, and experience a host of other human emotions despite the ever-increasing ‘flatness’ and ‘inhospitality’ of World Two. I will end with a quote by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy from her book, Mothers and Others, (2009:295); “I have no doubt that our descendants thousands of years from now (whether on this planet or another) will be bipedal, symbol-generating apes. They will probably be technologically proficient in realms we do not even dream of yet, as well as every bit as competitive and Machiavellian as chimpanzees are now, and probably even more intelligent than people today. What is not certain is whether they will still be human in ways we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathetic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”
Image of my father working as a comedian during the early 1970s
Hebdige, D. (1999) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up The Face‘ in Visual Culture: A reader (ed). J. Evans, S. Hall. London: SAGE Publications pp 99-124
Hrdy, S B. (2009) Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. London:The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press