Punk Isn't

Punk: An Aesthetic is a beautiful, excellently curated book of punk photographs, zines, posters, album covers, and ephemera. It focuses on 1976-77 but features a broad collection of proto- and post-punk artifacts. As is chronically the case, it gives too much space to Malcolm Mclaren and the Sex Pistols. It costs $55 and is too large to easily shoplift. It is not a book for punks.

In the past decade, punk has seen an upsurge of scholarly, journalistic, and popular interest. Most of the punk rockers who aren’t dead have had successful reunion tours. There have been, for instance, movies about the Ramones, the Minutemen, Joe Strummer, the Sex Pistols, and the Germs, along with The Other F Word, a documentary about famous punk-rock fathers. There is now an Encyclopedia of Punk, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, and a whole shelf worth of oral histories and “untold stories.”

Punk is officially overdetermined and overhistoricized. Any buck that can be squeezed from it has been, and then a couple more bucks have been squeezed by handwringing over all the buck-squeezing. Among the object and artwork donors for Punk: An Aesthetic are Cornell and Yale Universities. Everything is recuperable. Fuck it. Let’s move on.

What can you do with a beautiful punk-rock coffee-table book like Punk: An Aesthetic? You could flip through it and wistfully imagine an authentic cultural moment no one was ever actually privy to. You could cut the binding and turn it into a sweet collection of posters and collage material. You could buy it, show it off at a party once, and put it away. You could pore over its contents and crib inspiration for looks, songs, manifestos and band names. You could light it on fire and throw it through a window, although a brick is cheaper and more suited to the task.

To its credit, Punk: An Aesthetic doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, which can’t be said for many of the books that have been released about punk in recent years (at least six books claim punk as a full on “revolution”). And it really is lovely, a wonderful collection, touching on the garage scene of the ’60s and the hardcore ’80s but focusing heavily and pleasurably on the situationist/anarchist/negationist aspects of punk. A lot of circled A’s and propaganda, as well as a number of fliers, news stories and letters by concerned citizens, police and Christians complaining about the menace to society. But the book tells you its project from the outset: Punk is something particular, punk is an (ultra-leftist, DIY, liberatory) aesthetic.

To this end, Kugelberg writes in his opening essay: “The legacy of punk is simple: the immediate implementation of D.I.Y. grassroots culture among the young. No distance. Form a band, start a blog, become an artist, a DJ, a guitar player, an editor.” Nice stuff, all, but far from a liberatory slogan in 2012. What precarious worker in the “creative” fields isn’t expected to have a D.I.Y. cultural product or three on her résumé? What are Etsy, Kickstarter, and Bandcamp if not ways to capture D.I.Y spirit and transform it into respectability, into a job?

The takeaway, as in most other assessments of punk rock, is that punk, real punk (as opposed to its commodified byproducts), is innately liberatory, counterhegemonic. Punk is about freeing oneself from cultural malaise and consumerist stultification through an aesthetics of negation and DIY practice. Despite its deep recuperation, some ambient punk spirit still animates rebellion in those who pick up its mantle.

But Punk can’t help but be a dead thing, a museum of gestures and affects, made glossy and “historically significant,” shot full of aesthetic meaning and thus deprived of any aesthetic force. “What would it be like to see this flier on a telephone pole in my neighborhood, having no context for it?” the book wants you to ask, yearning, nostalgic for a time before you were born.

The inescapable cliché: punk rock changed my life. My first friend in college was made on the basis of a Screamers T-shirt (the famous image of Tomata Du Plenty’s exploding head which graces the cover of Punk), and I’ve been in punk bands since I was 17. Punk led me, via Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, to the Situationists, who in turn led me to theory and politics. But none of this has to do with some innate nature of punk rock. Punk fandom leads just as often to a lifestylist romanticising of abjection, stupidity and poverty, and not a few neo-nazis were made in Skrewdriver mosh pits. The only thing Nazi punks share with anarchopunks is a certain shared aesthetic sense, at least to the extent that aesethetic refers to a style (of music, dress or personal expression).

The problem with the whole enterprise is that “What is punk?” is the wrong question. The task of historical definition is always a murderous one. To define is to kill, to limit possibilities to a tautological set of outcomes that always prove the definition. If punk is negation, then Nazi hardcore isn’t punk or it’s just right-wing negation or it’s the exception that proves the rule. When Crass sang “Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be/And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me” in 1978’s “Punk Is Dead,” a song that is punk as fuck, they’re rejecting punk as a holistic, defined space. “Movements are systems and systems kill.”

The move that Crass rejects, the systemic definition and historicizing of punk, began immediately upon punk’s appearance and has relentlessly dogged the concept since: I know punks born 10 years after that song’s release who hate Crass for saying “Punk is dead.” Of course, Crass now follows Cornell University on the list of donors for Punk: An Aesthetic and is suing Anarchopunk.net for sharing the band’s albums.

This points toward the futility of trying to carve out what punk innately “is” and the emptiness of an aesthetic that can be defined and contained: the museums sell lots of tickets to exhibits full of warmed-over Situationism and proclamations of dada uncapturability. The question that actually interests me is, What can punk(s) do? Or rather, how? Because, dead as a doornail, it keeps stumbling around the cultural landscape, zombified and full of rage.

This question would have had an easy answer a couple years ago (“Uhh…nothing?”). As A.M Gittlitz notes in “Pussy Riot’s U.S Tour?”: “The days of the Fraternal Order of Police suing the Crucifucks, Tipper Gore taking on the Dead Kennedys, and black metal goblins burning churches are long past. Punk is now no more a social threat than some leftist fringe group selling poorly designed newspapers.” Punk is totally safe, a terrain not of social contention but of cultural consumption, and as such, it is the perfect moment to sell expensive books claiming that punk is revolutionary.

The dozens of books like Punk: An Aesthetic that attempt to capture and foreground a particular form of negation as essential to punk actually perform a sacralizing function, making it something whole, holy. Beautiful glossy reprints and loving scans of collage ephemera tossed off at a particular moment in 1977 attempt to make something lived and immediate into something worth “serious” consideration, canonical—taking into full account the religious origins of the word canon.

But, as Gittlitz argues, the reappearance of popular protest in the Global North, and, more directly, the international firestorm provoked by Pussy Riot, have changed the stakes and possibilities for punk’s deployment. Pussy Riot’s radical, public performances perform exactly the opposite thing from these books.

What was once scandalized, forbidden, subaltern, rises from its rightful caste hidden and below and speaks in the very locations of its oppressing power. Who are these women, these punks, to perform, to pray, to protest in sacred locales? To desecrate is one of punk’s existential tasks. The smashing of sacred relics conjures society’s most archaic reactions: in this case, imprisonment, public shaming, flogging, concerns of Satanism, witchcraft, hysteria.

While I strongly disagree with the notion of punk having an “existential task,” I think that profaning and making ridiculous the serious and the holy is one of the things that punk did best when it first appeared, and it continues to be capable of it now. It cannot do so, however, without a desacralizing of “punk,” a rejection of the narratives trapping it into a holistic space, even if that space is to our desires: liberatory, insurrectionary.

There are such things as bad questions, questions which enforce a particular kind of answer, and, as such, are not really questions at all. “What is punk?” is best suited to the kind of answers beloved by booksellers, museum curators and booking agents. Punk, as Pussy Riot has shown, can instead be approached like a tool box, a chaotic collection of signs, gestures, attitudes and aesthetics that can be deployed pell-mell to bring the opaque, inexpressible currents of desire and freedom into contact with the communicable ends of antiauthoritarian action. The anyone-can-do-it, loud, atonal attack of Pussy Riot uses certain punk techniques and strategies but rejects or ignores just as many others. If punk is to be good for anything beyond a certain form of aesthetic consumption, we’ll need fewer books and more Pussy Riot shows.

What urgent and helpful thing is there possibly left to say about ’70s punk rock? Perhaps just this: If you haven’t heard these albums yet, stop reading and immediately download: Buzzcocks, Singles Going Steady; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Flipper, Generic Album; Gang of Four, Entertainment!; Ramones, Ramones; Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blank Generation; Talking Heads, ’77; Television, Marquee Moon; Wire, Pink Flag; x, Los Angeles; and x-Ray Spex, Germ-Free Adolescents. Plus you’ll definitely want: Bad Brains, Bad Brains; Black Flag, The First Four Years; the Damned, Damned Damned Damned; Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo; Feederz, Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss?; the Germs, (MIA); Minor Threat, Complete Discography; the Raincoats, the Raincoats; the Slits, Peel Sessions; the Undertones, The Undertones. Also, consider: Angry Samoans, The Unboxed Set; Big Black, Songs About Fucking; the Circle Jerks, Group Sex; the Cramps, Bad Music for Bad People; Crass, Stations of the Crass; the Heartbreakers, L.A.M.F; LiLiPUT/Kleenex; Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime; Patti Smith, Horses; Snatch; the Wipers, Youth of America. I’m leaving out a hell of a lot, but if you had to choose between ever reading another word about punk or listening to these 32 albums, it’s a no brainer.