What a boring life /
How could anyone survive
(The Slits, “A Boring Life”)
Punk spoke not of ideals and dreams but of boredom. For punks, the 1960s hippie dream was dead and the socialist utopias were as boring as the ideologies of the law and order state or the welfare state. There was Crass, who had these kinds of utopian dreams, but not even The Clash shared them. Punk’s celebration of nihilism and chaos was something that the old school disciplined left wing intellectuals, with too thick glasses, or the committed green hippies, with too long hair, could never accept or understand. According to them, punk lacked political stance and positive political goals – “And we don’t care” (Sex Pistols, “Pretty Vacant”).
“London’s burning with boredom” (The Clash, “London’s Burning”), London being here an empty signifier that can be filled with the name of whatever European city ruled by the norms of stifling mediocrity and incapacitating vapidity. Everyone was forced to live inauthentic life as das Man, as everyone, in grim and gloomy cities. The Law was so pervasive that there was no way around or out of “reality” that it defined. The one-dimensional symbolic order dominated one’s being, language, styles and desires. As it made possibilities for everyone, it killed all possibilities of being-in-the-world in an authentic way. The Law negated the fury of existing. Everyone had to act in accordance with the thoughts, intentions and needs instilled in them by the Law, by the economic, social and moral conditioning. Deadening routines and monotony ruled everywhere: schools, streets, universities, factories, homes, consumption, entertainment, mass-media, democratic participation, etc. forced people to be dead. People continued “to circle around their own corpses”, as Antonin Artaud, the first true punk, once wrote.
As Howard Devoto gabbles through the distorted treble of Pete Shelley’s guitar: “I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me” (The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”). The answer to this situation was: “I want you / Autonomy” (The Buzzcocks, “Autonomy”). Raoul Vaneigem wrote in his The Revolution of Everyday Life, that the same energy is torn from the worker in his hours of work and his hours of leisure. This stolen energy drives the turbines of power. Therefore, “we have a world of pleasure to win and nothing to lose but boredom”. Punk became, as Savage says, a theatrical expression of the prison of boredom: “Boredom described the expansive, occluded, utopian politics that built up at the Sex Pistols’ core”; moreover, “everyone involved with the Sex Pistols instinctively realized Boredom’s spatial aspect and used its rhetoric as a key”. For Viv Albertine, the guitarist of The Slits, “There was a terrible fear of boredom, actually, an absolute horror of it which I don’t think I’ve ever shaken.”
Punk demanded commitment and was a chance to be something larger than the totality of the Law that made you a pawn in its game allowed you to be in your isolated position as a producing-consuming-submitting subject. In the middle of the absolutely grey immanence of the 1970s cities, punk offered the possibility of transcendence. Oscar Wilde knew all this when he wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, which line is contained in the Pretenders’ “Message of Love”.
In various cities around Europe punks became a community without common essence, an inoperative clan, which was proud of its totem animals, of its style and clothes, of its subversive attitude and its rebellious ethics, of its being in the world. It was the way you looked, the way you acted, spoke and posed, the way you were present, the things you respected and despised. A blank stare, cold coolness, arrogant gestures, a tough pose, a grandstanding fuck you to the Law: “You were full of poison”, as Savage says, “you submerged”.
Punk was an absolute deviancy, which resisted the intolerable horror of apathy and the mediocrity of the mode of existence that was pure survival. Being bored out of one’s head could be transformed into resistance, into the subversive rupture of the everyday practices of boredom. These spaces of interruptions were places of spontaneous action, subversive events, experiences, surprises, passion, risks, kicks, possibilities, revelations, explosions and shocks that escaped the control of the Law. Hence, punk shifted the interest of life from boredom and the passivity of being (work, unemployment, leisure) into the struggle for the actual domination and radical transformation of one’s way of being in the world, into “a single but infinitely diversified” productive activities, as the Situationists claimed. Punk called for a furiously passionate multidimensional life. Arthur Rimbaud’s words of “Bad Blood” perfectly describe punk: “Boredom is no longer my love. Rage, perversion, madness, whose every impulse and disaster I know, – my burden is set down entire”. Punk was not a means to socialism or to any other new social order but revolution itself. What drove The Slits, Ari Up says, was “making a revolution […] we were thinking, living, breathing music. We were thinking revolution along with music.” For her, boredom and poverty makes the mixture of revolution. Punk is, thus, the transgressive politics of boredom.
Therefore, the no-future nihilism of this “bad rock” was not a cynical withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, the irreverent punk attitude contained strong emancipatory beats. Punk’s fury and disorder was about freedom, about discovering one’s own power and desiring what one really desires, about being and doing what one wanted to be and do. Punk created various dramas of existence and multiple stages for the events of freedom. As Savage puts it, the ultimate nook on punk, the infernal power of punk offered the chance of action: “In becoming a nightmare, you could find your dreams”. Punk was a way to survive and become, not what one was expected to be, but what one was, not essentially, but as someone who in a constant state of becoming created and re-created oneself in and through the shared experience of angst, nihilism, anarchy, fury, filth and resistance. Punk was unconditional resistance beyond all political parties, programs, ideologies and utopias, but it was also fun, Sally Flesh says, “or more properly, some kind of fun of no fun, more about jouissance than pleasure”.
Then again, in 1979 London was drowning: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin / A nuclear error, but I have no fear” (The Clash, “London Calling”). One could say that the first wave of punk self-destructed in 1978/1979. In 1979, The Clash covered a song of The Crickets, which conceded: “I fought the law and the law won”. Then again, “Only those movements which were able to cease, to stop by themselves before dropping dead, have existed!”, writes Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer.
Instead of considering punk as either an adolescent music or a youth subculture (this is how all the sophisticated subcultural sociologists see it), which one either leaves behind, as in a normal case, or refuses to let go, as in a pathological case, we should consider punk as the style of radical critique and subversive fury, or even more fundamentally, as the scene of being. Even if punk ceased, it was not the end of punk, the intensive energy of which did not vanish into thin air. Some may consider this naïve but “we don’t care”. A poster that Reid designed for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” features two city buses, the first headed for “Nowhere”, the second for “Boredom”. The energy and fury of punk did not disappear but continues to travel on the bus it boarded. There is a brilliant movie, Helsinki Twilight 1984, directed by Pete Europe, which shows how the early 1980s post-punk and club culture in Helsinki and London carried on this attitude.
All in all, punk is the refusal to be a pawn in the game of the Law, a subversive protest against the order of things. Its essence is discomfort, confrontation and refusal. As Deirdre King says: “Punk, to be punk, has to hit where it hurts: to subvert the establishment and its mythologies wherever it finds them and in whatever style is appropriate.” Punk’s attitude and style, its desire to be present and fully engaged in every moment and its immediate furious and filthy “No” to the boredom of the totalitarianism of mediocrity has survived. Instead of dreaming yet-to-come democracies and just societies or green/socialist utopias, punk takes place here-and-now. No goals and ends justify the existing boredom. There is no future for dreaming. Because there is no future, you have to act and be here and now. The multiple subversive styles, acts and events of punk open new scenes for being-in-the-world, for becoming visible and audible.
They all hold their breath
As they watch the last sunset
And their dreams have finally come
At the end of the world.
(The Avengers, “The End of the World”)
The commitment to be and courage to say “No” was too often transformed into a highway to self-destruction. For some, life just was too intensive and furious. “He was very clever, and the reason he went scooting downhill, he was so idealistic, and he really couldn’t stand the world and its premises”, says Viv Albertine about the tragic fate of Sid Vicious.
“They were … well Beautiful People”, Tom Wolfe writes in his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “not ‘students’, ‘clerks’, ‘salesgirls’, ‘executive trainees’ – Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! We are the Beautiful People, ascendant from your robot junk-yard.” This furious beauty of being in the junk-yard was, and is, the scene of punk and its subversive style.
Ari Hirvonen, Professor in Jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki, Finland.
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