Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Shock Doctrine

Coming out late October on Zero, Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is an anthology of 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: "1976/86" was written in spring 1986 for the final issue of Monitor and simultaneously participated in the spate of 10th Anniversary retrospection (mostly hand-wringing: what happened, where did we go wrong?) while also examining the retrospective discourse itself. Far from punk being something long-long-ago and absent, I felt it still loomed over the landscape of British music, which if anything was over-determined by punkthink. In a way that essay is the acorn that after a long interval grew into Rip It Up and Start Again, although "postpunk" as currently understood was just one of  many after-punk pathways traced in the piece. 


"Punk as outrage" was another of the 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 -  Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right -  although it's got so much attention this summer you've almost certainly heard of it already. Indeed it's rather a controversial book, with some on the hardcore edge of the Left seemingly 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 much everybody in that entire Fifties-Sixties gang, which then evolved through punk (especially the Malcolm McLaren wing) 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: there are new norms to break, new normies to appall. 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 the old wet-liberal canard "you can go so far to the left that 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 switched to the right - not because they shared the values particularly but because that's where the new cutting edge was, in terms of irreverence and iconoclasm. The buzz of shocking, the rush of causing offence - this was more important than the actual political positions and their real-world implications. This is the punk of today, in other words.

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 apart from anything else is a very handy quick-read recap of recent history / guided tour through the online sewers of discourse, from the social injustice warriors of the alt-right to the anti-feminist virulence of the manosphere (or should that be men-of-fears?). That is the Revolts chapter that dissects the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wylie 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 and enfeebled 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, an insidious decadence weakening them from within, and coming up with solutions that recall Nietzche's "in a time of peace, the warlike man attacks himself."

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 warnings, etc - the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her uncatchy catchphrase "America is great because America is good," is Momism incarnate for the new angry young men, the symbol of a stifling virtuousness, a tyranny of good behaviour. So instead of Nurse Ratchet, they elected Andrew Dice Clay as President, on a ticket of Tourette's as a style of governance, reactive as much as reactionary.  

Underlying it all is the crisis of a masculinity that doesn't know what it's for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era where women provide for themselves or are the high-earning member of the family. Hence the fixation on imagined threats to gun ownership, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth (always struck by how "fracking" sounds like the violating act that it is - how's that for "libidinal economy"?).... hence the hankering for macho foreign policy postures (waving that big "stick" around) and Theweleit-on-the-Freikorps redolent Walls and dams against contaminating floods.....  these and so many other psyche-fortifying issues are all of them proxies, props, displacements, compensations for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.   


* The really acute essay on punk in that issue of Monitor is the piece by Hilary Bichovsky (then writing as Hilary Little) on a recent retrospective 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, for a image that will shock. As with Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", as with names such as Stiff Kittens and Kill My Pet Puppy, the underlying idea is that softy furry things made you soft inside.  Killing soft weak things, even symbolically with sick humour, makes you hard.

Sex Revolts actually started with a sick joke. We went out for dinner with a friend - this is early Nineties, East Village NYC - and he'd brought along a friend, someone who'd been in various noise bands (including this one).  During the meal, the musician told a joke:

Q: What's the worse thing about raping a child?

A: Having to kill her afterwards.

I guess it was a cool test - if you laughed, you passed. We flunked the test. Later, walking home, Joy and I started talking about why, at that time, there were such a lot of underground-rock bands with songs about killing women. Three hours of fevered discussion later, we had a book mapped out.   

**  For further Nagle reading, try this Baffler essay about the breakdown of manners and self-restraint in public discourse.