Punk, Law, Resistance … “I have set my affair on nothing”

by | 7 Mar 2011

1. I, Punk

In 1977 I was sixteen. Everything I have to say about punk is coloured by that fact, because sixteen was precisely the right age to be if punk was going to have a decisive impact on you. Because punk was not about your social class, gender or race, it was about your age, it defined a generation, and I belong to the punk generation. It defined, redefined my musical taste, in a way which is still effective, but more importantly than that, if this is not going to be just another fifty year old telling you about the joys of Richard Hell and Alternative TV, which may or may not work for you in 2011, punk defined a sensibility that went beyond music. Punk, as well, was/is a way of thinking. Punk thinking, at sixteen, meant questioning what was taken for granted, and this was not the questioning of the protest singer who uses music as a platform to denounce society’s ills, it was first and foremost a questioning of the mechanisms of the pop industry and the consumer’s role within it.  At sixteen, I was old enough to have bought Slade singles when they came out in 1973, and Beatles solo LP’s in 1974 (Wings!) and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in 1975.  Old enough to listen to John Peel’s first Festive 50 when it took all evening to play the top five, consisting as it did of long long slow slow tracks. When Peel duly played the Damned’s first single, New Rose/Help!, it sounded impossibly fast and brief. I had enjoyed the heyday of glam pop, but the young teenager needs credibility and seriousness and I had bought into, like my peers, an alternative post-hippy heavy metal prog rock subculture which was not my own, which had its established classics from years ago, which were duly purchased. And I was quite happy, in cheesecloth and denim, seeing the Who in a stadium playing Tommy, with this adopted identity.

At sixteen, what punk said was this: “Wake up! You’ve been cheated! Everything you think worthwhile in the thing you think most important (music) is actually not exciting you! It is awful boring turgid rubbish!” You had to have been just old enough to have been immersed in what came before, to mark the impact of punk, but not old enough to be threatened by punk. A thirteen year old might get into punk, but wouldn’t have the shock; a nineteen year old would reject it. Punk’s generation gap. What mattered was not that punk gave you new records and concerts to acquire and attend, but that it required the wholesale discarding of almost the entirety of your existing record collection. You could not place the Sex Pistols beside Mike Oldfield — the old stuff had to go. Punk’s first great lesson: if this is right, that is wrong, which side are you on? No relativistic tolerance of this and this, but an intemperate demand do not tolerate that. Now, in 2011, lots of mid-1970’s music has crept back into my listening, but then, in 1977, scorched earth. Apart from the newly honoured precursors — Velvets, Dolls, Stooges, MC5: year zero. The punk sensibility promoted first of all a conscious reflexivity on aesthetic choices. The key attitude: it is no longer possible to … . Punk was a profoundly teleological grand narrative. It stated, now that the breakthrough has been achieved, the old is redundant, no looking back, that was then, this is now: it is no longer possible, after the Sex Pistols, to be Led Zeppelin.

Here’s the thing: punk was not a romanticism, it was a neo-classicism. It said, the cultural development has gone wrong, we must go back, return, to simplicity, brevity, speed, to Nuggets, to singles not albums, to bars not stadiums. It turns out the mid-70s was hippy culture’s baroque phase, and after the baroque comes neo-classicism.  Punk was both year zero and a return to a lost golden age, paradoxical as that might be. It was intensely focussed on its own situation: what to listen to, how to dress, what must be dismissed. It hated first of all, its own environment: rock was decadent, punk journalists had to scorn the interviewees from established bands, fandom was out. This breach in a culture, the before and after it created, is the crucial matter. This means I understood paradigm shift and epistemological break intuitively before the names Kuhn and Althusser meant anything to me.

2. Theoretical detour

Addressing punk as an event in and against pop culture, an implicit critique of the passivity of the consumer, a nascent theory of alienation in which the fan creates the star (see Vermorel’s Fandemonium), remembering punk’s injunction, do something, means punk had a critique of form, a self-awareness which militates against seeing it as a platform for addressing/critiquing society at large. As the idea of platform is too simple, how then do we think about punk’s politics? Stewart Home, in Cranked Up Really High, despite disavowing intellectual respectability, offers a nuanced analysis of punk (or perhaps he simply parodies academic hair-splitting — it never does to take Home too straightforwardly). The book is subtitled Genre Theory and Punk Rock and in it he distinguishes punk (lower case), Punk (capitalised) and PUNK (upper case). The argument goes something like this: punk rock is a disposable novelty genre, Punk is a coherent ideological content and PUNK is a musical genre incorporating punk and Punk. The tension is between novelty and authenticity; punk “is doomed to eternal repetition”, Punk “can be treated teleologically”. The twist in Home’s argument lies in seeing the disposable novelty punk as in a way more authentic than the ideological punk which commits to “authenticity”. The teleology of ideological Punk is treated by Home dialectically, as a discourse that in the twenty years or so following punk moved through rhetorics of class war (Punk), race war (Oi), gender war (Riot Grrrl) and ecology. Home goes out of his way to argue that the Sex Pistols were never PUNK and the so-called “situationist influence” is a misunderstanding. He has in his target here Greil Marcus’s free associative study of Punk and its claimed precursors, Lipstick Traces.

I find more merit in Marcus’s study than Home would concede, although it is true to say that the question that enlivens thought when you read Home, namely “is he serious?”, never arises with Marcus, who is all too serious. As a methodology, Marcus’s freely associative “secret history” which allows him to leap from John Lydon to the sixteenth century heretic John of Leyden is, shall we say, a rather loose application of Benjaminian “dialectics at a standstill”, which leaves me wondering why Steve Jones, guitarist, does not mandate a linkage to Steve Jones, geneticist, and his startling claim that “evolution has been repealed”, a claim as ripe in its possibilities for the millennial dreamer as any Brethren of the Free Spirit. You see the problem? What links have been established?

Home’s approach to ideological punk has the advantage of reminding us that PUNK was appropriated as a platform for both left and right wing ideologies, and that these ideologies are extrinsic and not of the essence of Punk; however, despite his Hegelianism, Home would not accept that Punk has any essence, preferring reception aesthetics. Contrary to Home, and in a move that makes me think Marcus’s less strict method nonetheless gets closer to the truth, I’ll take the Sex Pistols to be punks, and also take it that an essence of punk attitude can be isolated, before the Clash introduce class rhetoric as a supplementary attribute.

3.  “you better understand I’m in love with my self, my beautiful self…”

The Sex Pistols first single put Anarchy back in circulation as an idea, or at least created a new audience for the political theory. On the scorched earth created by the break, in the space created by the destruction of the past false culture, Anarchy In The UK erected a signpost. The Anarchist // Anti-Christ rhyme, not to mention the B-side I Wanna Be Me, not to mention the obsession with the effects of sovereignty expressed in the second single God Save The Queen: wherever these lyrics came from in Johnny Rotten’s head or Malcolm McLaren’s prompting, they pointed directly to a specific current of anarchist thought which was also the culmination of Left Hegelian theorising  that is to be found in Max Stirner’s The Ego And Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum) from 1844 [While walking through the city yesterday, thinking about this piece, I was confronted by a large billboard, stating in large capitals, A REVOLUTION STARTED IN 1844; if I were a psychogeographical mystic, I would take this sign for a sign, even though it turned out to be an advert for the Co-operative bank].

Stirner’s book, best remembered outside anarchist circles, if at all, via Marx and Engels’s denunciation in The German Ideology, articulates clearly the ideas embodied by Punk:

The egoist, turning against the demands and concepts of the present, executes pitilessly the most measureless — desecration. Nothing is holy to him! The desecrator puts forth his strength against every fear of God, for fear of God would determine him in everything that he left standing as sacred.

For Stirner, dialectically developing Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, any essence or hypostatised spirit is first an alienation then a reification which becomes a material force standing as enemy to the project of self-sovereignty. That sacred spirit may be called God, Mankind, State, Community, Commodity; all must be opposed by the unique self whose creativity and desire follows from a reversal of perspective whereby all these phantoms are exposed as products of our creation, rather than vice-versa, seeing ourselves as products of the creation of Society, Family, God.

The paradigm shift or epistemological break which punk enacted in popular culture is better named as an instance of this reversal of perspective, thus the Stirnerite philosophy is not an optional add-on politics of punk, but the true and unique political content of punk. Stirner can be and has been misread as a right wing libertarian, as a quasi-Thatcherite “There is no such thing as society” ideologue, as mere selfishness. Rather he should be seen as the link between Hegelian and Nietzschian thought. His book concludes:

I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing … If I concern myself for myself (if I set my affair on myself) the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say: All things are nothing to me (I have set my affair on nothing).

Stirner distinguishes political revolution from egoistic rebellion/insurrection:

Revolution consists in an overturning of conditions and is accordingly a political or social act; Revolution aims at new arrangements, insurrection leads us to no longer let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions”. To be without a constitution is the endeavour of the rebel.

The chances of making the correct reading of Stirner are considerably enhanced by the availability of Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations), another crucial text which was given currency in punk anarchist circles by the persistent rumour that all this had something to do with the Situationists. Vaneigem basically updated Stirner for the 1960s, as can be seen in this passage:

The reversal of perspective entails a kind of anti-conditioning. Not a new form of conditioning, but a new game and its tactics; the game of subversion. The reversal of perspective turns knowledge into praxis, hope into freedom, and mediation into a passion for immediacy. … To reverse perspective is to stop seeing things through the eyes of the community, of ideology, of the family, of other people. To grasp hold of oneself as of something solid, to take oneself as starting point and centre. To base everything on subjectivity and to follow one’s subjective will to be everything.

This expresses the spirit and essence of Punk. Except, Stirner would object that to talk of the spirit of punk as some essence extractable from the unique moment it happened (it happened to me) and transferable to another context is to create yet another tyrannical phantom to which the unique individual would become enslaved. Better to say that the autobiographical contextualising of Section One above is there to say that punk as it happened to me is a unique non-generalisable experience of reversal of perspective from which no one else can draw any lessons, particularly if you were not sixteen in 1977. “The door-keeper … roars in his ear: ‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you.’ ” Unlike the parable in Kafka it is to Liberty rather than Law that admittance is sought. Still, each their own door.

4.  Deflationary Postscript

But, certain readers of this might say, you are making a fool of yourself, taking this juvenile infatuation, this adolescent episode so seriously. It may be so, but still a reader of Stirner, Punk, and the philosophy the signpost of Punk pointed towards, left its mark on me sufficiently for my response to be that many many others make fools of themselves by taking God seriously, taking Law seriously, taking Philosophy seriously. One of Punk’s traits, on those of us marked by it, is an inability to be serious about socially sanctioned serious matters, and an obverse seriousness about precisely these things society demarcates as trivial.

In 1978 I was seventeen. Still wearing cheesecloth and denim actually, if truth be told, as a witness from that time has just inconveniently reminded me. So, as Badiou would recognise, the event is in large part constructed retrospectively, and, assiduous as I was in redefining my record collection, clothing took a while longer. Nor did exposure to Vaneigem break the habit of commodity accumulation — that record collection again. However when the time to decide what to study at university came to this middle class teenager, my enthusiasm did not take me into cultural studies and subcultural studies, which always struck me as reporting to power about the activities of those seeking to escape power — acting as a kind of paid informer. Instead, recalling Stirner’s discussion of State and Law as two of the major institutions of alienated sovereignty, I decided that knowing the enemy might be a good use of the opportunity free education offered then. I went to the Law, as to enemy territory.  I went to the Law, but I came from Punk. Punk thinking informs critical legal thinking. Still here a third of a century later, confronting the alienations and reifications which oppose the project of self-sovereignty, Punk made me a critical legal scholar.

Angus McDonald is Senior Lecturer in Law at Staffordshire University

1 Comment

  1. Some of us did not grow in the UK, and did not grow with Punk…but Angus McDonald’s meditation on Punk, Law and Anarchy is a reminder of one hears and has not experienced, but moreover it is a call to my ears of a critical reflection on the ‘I’ and Stirner despite his problems engages with this bloody ‘I’ ruthelessly. And Angus McDonald types to this eloquently and thoughtfully. Thank you.


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