VERY BRIEF READING GUIDE TO: Willis P (1978)  Profane Cultures, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

(My) Introduction

I haven't got many extensive notes on this piece, which is a rather descriptive ( and pretty fanciful) account of the lifestyles of two main cultural groupings -- bikers and hippies. My notes on Willis's Introduction and Conclusion summarise the main themes, while the Theoretical Appendix offers some famous methodological guidelines.

(Willis's) Introduction

This is an ethnographic study, but it also focuses on style. The groups concerned are not just  'cultural dopes', dominated by mainstream culture or commercial culture: they have adopted their own cultures, primarily as a  'lived-through solution to alienation'. As with Willis's more famous study  (Learning to Labour)  there are both penetrations and limitations detectable in these subcultures.

Culture arises from shared material experiences. It conditions subjectivity in the minutest detail. The market also provides cultural material -- in Willis thinks it is mostly  'rubbish'--  but the groups work them up, maintaining a dialectic: an initial code appears, a group gathers around it, and that group then modifies that code. This is not always deliberate or under control, of course. The elements arising from social structure are especially likely to lead to misunderstandings and to unrecognised domination. [There is a hint of a mechanism best developed in a other arguments about cultural reproduction -- it is possible to take cultural objects, strip them of their  'aura' and thus to strip off elements of social control].

This form of cultural resistance does not lead to social change, and it can display a  'bad side' too, as it reproduces brutality, for example. Willis makes a plea for changes in consciousness as a pre-requisite for revolution, and makes a quick assessment of the likelihood of this developing in the two groups he studies. Briefly, hippies centre around the values of dropping out, while bike boys, are a passed over and isolated stratum -- the  'uncalled'.

Finally, Willis sees great potential in pop music. Although pop features different styles, it offers a shared idiom, and thus acts as a basis for solidarity. This is new, since sheet music was always stratified in terms of regions and social classes. [Who remembers sheet music?]

Willis's Conclusions

The ethnographic study has depicted elements of concrete subjectivity, active moments in youths' own forms of production, a demonstration of lived - through contradictions. These cultural forms are concrete and context bound, detailed, and able to saturate the whole life of the participants. They do have political significance, in that they take an anti-commodity form, offer some control over cultural production, and display a general praxis, an 'art in life'. There are implicit criticisms of society, although more detailed source [theoretical? ] interrogation is needed to see which questions are really important.

For example, hippies accept a form of social determinism, but  'heroically' try to live their life as an experience, valuing love over technology, developing a tolerance and acceptance of conventional  'failures'. They are critical of the cultural bankruptcy of the Left, and of the Protestant Ethic. Their relativist and subjective notion of time offered a particular challenge to conventional society.

Biker culture was also critical. It was about taming a fierce technology, mastering the alienation of the machine. It was about mocking conformity and social order  [and Willis offers us lots more lyrical prose about the bikers' 'piratical and outrageous air'  and 'clumsy grace'].

Both styles have limits as real politics, since they offer 'density' rather than analysis, and fail to see the importance of social class. Their solutions operate in imagination only, rather than in the real-world, and they see no dialectic between real politics and material structures. Their values are really post-revolutionary: until a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism occurs, they can only offer sublimations of fundamental contradictions. Thus bikers can master the technology of the bike, but not that of work, and the subculture reproduces some of the nasty bits of the parental culture too, such as its racism. Hippies seem more fundamentally critical, the basis of a curious prediction by Willis that their sub culture will be more long-lasting. Withdrawal from society is their solution, combined with a spiritual critique of materialism rather than a political analysis of capitalism. So both forms display the connection between the weaknesses and strengths of operating at a cultural level.

Willis' Theoretical Appendix

The object is to study the relations between individuals and objects, institutions, and social structures. These relations need not always be symmetrical, and, indeed, are often hierarchical -- but they are still reciprocal. We can study these relations at three levels:

  1. Indexical. Outside items become  'indexed' to a social group, as with distinctive patterns of music or clothes. This process can impose  'the tyranny of the commodity form' and, by the  'slow drip of daily habit' it can wear down subjectivity. This is the classic realm of ideology, therefore -- yet even indexical fields can contain subjective elements.
  2. Homological. This refers to how particular items reflect [social] structures, [group]concerns, and typical [individual] attitudes and feelings. Homologies, therefore join up the different levels. They synchronise, through  'images': thus the importance to bikers of the British motorbike, for example, as a way of synchronising, or focusing concerns and so on and projecting them, as it were, on a particular object. [Willis explains that the valorisation of British motorbike comes to symbolise a struggle against alien, Japanese, technology, and as a way of linking to parental tradition, skills and values, although bikers promptly customise the standard models] A British motorbike, of course is also a commodity, and thus participates in the economic circuits of the realisation of value and all that that implies for marxists. These symbolic connections and political connections are often unrealised by the actors, but they can be studied by researchers:
      Participant-observation can demonstrate the shared meanings and relations, the symbolic structure along which subjectivities lie [that is, presumably, uncover the particular meanings of particular objects for particular groups]. However, Willis sees participant-observation in the classics CCCS manner -- too naturalistic and self-referential, not proper science.

      Semiotic analysis can uncover the objective possibilities  [those not realised by the subjects themselves]. The objects can be treated as a cipher, containing the original meanings of, or expressing/ signifying transcultural meanings which are interpreted differently  [by the different generations, for example, who would see a British motorbike in very different ways], or signifying the [current ] social meanings. Semiotic analysis will also demonstrate some new possibilities inherent internally, so to speak. [I fear that the best demonstration of this tendency is to be found in modern advertising, rather than in the activities of cultural radicals].

  3. At the integral level, diachronic analysis [that which takes place over time] would help us see how homologies arise. It would uncover the dialectical processes of selection from available materials as a form of cultural production. It would focus on the integral and historical elements rather than the invariant and structural ones  [the latter are the topic for semiotic analysis]. Integral moments never offer a simple unity, or a reconciliation between subject and object  [a rather obscure criticism of Lukacs here?] --  'the "objective possibilities" of particular items have their own obstinate life', which block, create, and divert in their own right.
My example, based on Willis

Willis, and lots of other people since, have offered us analyses of the meaning of the black leather jacket, in this case, the meaning especially for bikers. As any biker really knows, black leather jackets are not worn primarily for functional reasons, although this is usually the excuse offered to mothers or teachers -- such jackets are neither warm nor waterproof, and they offer limited protection for the skin, should the rider fall off. Much more functional clothing is available, but bikers would not be seen dead in it -- there must be some other, deeper symbolic meaning. How would we go about uncovering this deeper meaning?

We might try indexical analysis, in Willis's  terms, and trying to see how the clothing industry managed to associate black leather jackets with motorcyclists. We might examine how any subjective resistance is worn down by the fiendish arts of advertising and promotion, which suggest in their sneaky way that black leather jackets are sexy, youthful, attractive, associated with freedom, or whatever. We might also keep our eyes open for any residual subjective elements -- the way black leather jackets are customised, perhaps, or deliberately worn in inappropriate circumstances  (such as to family weddings or graduation cermonies).

We could try uncovering the homological links concentrated in the black leather jacket. Willis actually shows us how here, by arguing that the black leather jacket condenses a number of cultural images which are indeed often unrealised by the actors. Indeed, asking bikers in the course of participant-observation would not get you very far, I suspect -- you would probably get only the surface rationalisations, that claim that black leather jackets are the most waterproof or the warmest items. I suspect that no self-respecting biker would admit to any fantasies about manliness, rebellion, or playing at pirates or cowboys, despite Willis's lyricism.

To go to the integral level, we could pursue a cultural history of the black leather jacket -- Willis tells us, for example, that this was a garment originally worn by London dockers, but that it came finally to symbolise traditional working-class manliness, including the classic pride in hard manual labour, across the generations and regions. Hard-working material helps form an homology with hard-working people, and thus with 'hard' young men specifically, I suppose.

Of course, to pick up an earlier aside, the objective possibilities of the black leather jacket have been much developed since its use by either dockers or bikers -- it became a fashionable item, a matter of pure style. Even celebrities like George Michael were photographed wearing one; gays wear them, perhaps as part of their larger project to re-appropriate conventional images of masculinity; and women wear them, perhaps to offer a strong hetero contrast against their 'masculine' textures. Even I wear one, in my  'elderly biker' manifestation -- I like to appear as a conventional biker, and to enjoy that notoriety and 'air of menace' exhibited in the reactions of straight people: I am, of course,  wearing my black leather jacket ironically!  I may be the only one still doing, even ironically, classic cultural resistance in a black leather jacket, however. Other elderly bikers, I suspect, wear the jacket as a symbol of solidarity with younger bikers and also as a quiet reminder to them that they were doing all this first, and can still do it with panache, as a kind of counter-generational politics.