Thursday, September 21, 2017
Coming out late October on Zero Books, Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is an anthology of punk and post-punk texts edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. Participants include Simon Critchley, Judy Nylon, Tony D, Tom Vague, Jonh Ingham, Penny Rimbaud, Barney Hoskyns, Nicholas Rombes, Jon Savage.... our lost dear boy Mark Fisher .... and yours truly.
My contribution is an essay looking back at punk, but not from the present: titled "1976/86" it was written in the spring of 1986 for the final issue of Monitor. The piece simultaneously participated in the spate of 10th Anniversary retrospection that year (mostly hand-wringing in tone: what happened, where did we go wrong?) while also stepping back to examine the retrospective discourse itself. Specifically, I felt that far from punk being something long-long-ago and absent, it continued to loom over the landscape of British music, which if anything was over-determined by punkthink. In some ways that essay is the acorn out which Rip It Up and Start Again would grow after a long interval, although "postpunk" as currently understood was just one of the after-punk pathways that I traced in the piece.
"Punk as outrage" was one of those trajectories pinpointed and dissected - the vileness and Vicious-ness lineage, a/k/a "I killed a cat" = Doing It My Way*. Thinking about that reminded me that I've been remiss in not flagging up here another very interesting Zero publication, although it's got so much attention this summer you've almost certainly heard of it already: Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right, Indeed it's rather a controversial book, with some on the hardcore edge of the Left rather viscerally offended by its thesis, which asserts that there is a commonality of psychology in the desire-to-shock, whether manifested on the far right or far left of the political-cultural spectrum.
In Nagle's words, "the ideologically flexible, politically fungible, morally neutral nature of transgression as style" - tactics of outrage and taboo-testing provocation - gradually migrated from the old counterculture to the new contra-culture of far right trolls. That shift represents both "the co-opting" and "the triumph of 60s left styles of transgression." The scabrous truth-telling and refusal to self-censor of the Yippies, Lenny Bruce, counterculture publications from The Realist to Oz, and pretty everybody in that entire Fifties-Sixties gang, which then evolved through punk (especially the McLaren wing of it) to become the Sixties-turned-inside-out of industrial culture - these attitudes and techniques have found a new home on the far right. The target is the same as it always was - the prudish / prudent bourgeoisie - but the nature of the taboos and the ideas of what is bad conduct have shifted. As the most infamous exponent of the new style - now disgraced for going too far - has put it, the dominant culture to be countered is "the nannying and language policing and authoritarianism of the progressive left - the stranglehold that it has on culture." **
In the horrendously polarized, high-stakes moment that is now, you can kind of see why Nagle's thesis might offend; it does slightly resemble a little bit the old wet-liberal canard "you can go so far to the left, you end up on the right". But I have actually had a couple of conversations in the past year with online strangers who claimed that they know people on the radical left who have gone right - not because they shared the values but because that's where the new cutting edge was, in terms of irreverence and iconoclasm. The buzz of shocking, the rush of offending - this was more important than the actual political positions and their real-world consequences.
Nagle references The Sex Revolts a couple of times during her thesis. That book is a bit of an orphan in the oeuvre, indeed there have been quite long periods when I've completely forgotten that Joy and I ever wrote it. While I can't quite reconstruct the head that came up with the over-arching thesis on which the thing is scaffolded and which I'm not certain stands up anymore (that was the peak / swan-song of my infatuation with French theory), whenever I've looked back at a specific portion or patch of it - the stuff on grunge, or Siouxsie, or the whole section on psychedelia - it still seems on the money.
Probably the sharpest part is the stuff that relates to Nagle's book, which is the early chapter dissecting the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wiley in his 1942 book Generation of Vipers. Wylie identified a form of new American decadence in the growth of consumerism, mass media entertainment like radio, and suburbia, which he linked to matriarchy and domesticity: American virility, the frontier style of rugged martial masculinity on which the nation was founded, was being smothered by over-mothering, comfort and niceness. The Sex Revolts mentions Robert Bly's Iron Man as a modern-day, therapeutically tinged and New Age-y resurgence of the Momism critique, a sort of Jung Thug manifesto. But, published in 1995, our book was a year too early for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: angry young men reacting against metrosexual consumerism and sensitivity, a creeping decadence weakening from within.
Fight Club was the book that coined the term "snowflake," and the novel has proved to be a prophetic parable. The ugly contorted face of anti-Momism today is the paranoid impatience with political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warning - the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Underlying it all is the crisis of masculinity that doesn't know what its for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era. Hence the fixation on guns, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth, on macho posturing foreign policy - surrogates and displacements for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.
* The really acute essay on punk in that issue of Monitor is Hilary Bichovsky (then writing as Hilary Little) on an exhibition of Jamie Reid's art, including his work for the Sex Pistols, in the course of which she wryly but implacably picks apart the impulse-to-outrage from an unsparing feminist perspective. One of the things she comments on is the "Who Killed Bambi" artwork - the slain deer, an actual living thing sacrificed for an edgy concept. Like Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", like names such as Stiff Kittens, Kill My Pet Puppy, the underlying idea is that softy furry things made you soft inside. Killing things, even symbolically with sick humour, makes you hard.
** for further Nagle reading, try this Baffler essay about the breakdown of manners and self-restraint in public discourse.