Archive for October, 2016

Punk as Absence

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by Magadh

blackflagI discovered punk rock when I was in eighth grade (which would have been in 1982 or so). My buddy Chris introduced me to it. In seventh grade he’d turned me on to Iron Maiden. At that point I thought Number of the Beast was the most transgressive thing ever recorded (and so I was fascinated by it). One day, toward the end of eighth grade, Chris said to me, “Iron Maiden is ok, I guess, but Black Flag is way better.” Our mutual friend Brian (who we all called Chauncy for reasons I never quite understood) hooked me up with a tape that had Damaged on one side and the Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables on the other. I was hooked.

dksThe music spoke to me in a way that metal never did. I always thought of metal as kind of thuggish, and that was never me. Strangely, punk didn’t seem that way to me at all. I got hassled at school all the time and I was pretty much a social pariah. Punk gave those experiences a meaningful narrative. The jocks and the rednecks and the cool kids and cute girls who made my life unpleasant were all scum. I and the few friends I had who’d tumbled on to this thing were privy to a sort of secret knowledge, of bands and scenes and signs and movements and languages. There’s a line from an old song by the German punk band Die Ärzte that goes something like, “Wir haben erlebt was andere nicht mal ahnen [We experienced what others don’t suspect].” That summed it up quite nicely, although I only heard it later.

It was only later too, once I’d learned a bit of the history of the cultural formation with which I had aligned myself, that I started to wonder what it was really all about (i.e. was it about what I thought it was about or something different). It was in the course of this that I worked out that talking about “the” punk scene was really a misnomer. The punk scene, like the underground scene more generally (and probably most cultural formations) is not a cohesive organization but a set of overlapping micro- and macro-scenes. There is no central unifying text or positive content, only a set of more or less overlapping networks.

Once I realized this, the culture of punk seemed to me to involve a paradox. People spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink in the 1980s trying to figure out what punk was and (what often seemed more important) what and who it wasn’t. If you read the letters section of Maximum Rock n Roll in those days you would see at least one or two, and more often significantly more, assertions that someone was a poser, or that some band was bunch of posers, etc. Even when I was 14 that stuff seemed like a stupid, sterile thing to argue about. In any case, this grated harshly against the ideals of freedom and the varieties of aesthetic expression that were fundamental to my attraction to punk at the most general level. On the one hand, authenticity was key. On the other, there was no such thing.

lydonI remember in this context reading an interview with John Lydon in which he asserted that anyone calling themselves punk at that point was being fundamentally inauthentic. There was a certain sense in which he had a point. From his perspective, he and a few dozen people in and around London in the mid-1970s had created a thing, which had then died (on an electrically tense night in the Cow Palace in San Francisco if not before), and they had moved on. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The London punk scene of the mid- to late 1970s was influenced by the sort of glam/art rock scene in New York, radiating outward from the New York Dolls, which was itself heavily influenced by bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. The more you dig into it, the more you find that each of these scenes was connected (sometimes by personnel, sometimes by style) to bands and scenes that had gone before. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus makes the point quite effectively (pace Stewart Home’s rather nasty critique in Cranked Up Really High) that there is a line of cultural connection that can be drawn connecting Dadaism, Lettrism, Situationism, and a bunch of even less well known movements for the revolutionization of art and civilization, with the various punk-related scenes of the 1970s.

yotIn the early 1980s, I and my friends took part in inscribing the hardcore punk scene into the culture of small town eastern Washington. By that point the denizens of the “original” scene of Lydon and his compatriots had mostly moved off to serious musical careers, straight suburban lives, or spiralling drug addiction (or some combination thereof). By then too, the original impetus had fragmented, leading to the formation of complexes of microscenes in Los Angeles, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and dozens of other cities (and hundreds of small towns) in the U.S. and around the world.

7secsGiven this process of fragmentary diffusion, it is not surprising that the question of what it all meant seemed so crucial. But, of course, there was no there there, at least in the sense of a coherent cultural something binding it all together. Even within the subgroups there was immense variation. Looking at straight edge, just as a for instance, the scene that grew up in D.C. around Minor Threat was much different than that in New York around bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, and both were different than the scene in California (Stalag 13, Uniform Choice, and others), and from the one in Reno centering on 7 Seconds. [NB. If you’re reading this and thinking that different bands might be more representative do bear in mind that I’m just tossing this stuff off the top of my head. If you know better (or think you know better) feel free to write your own blog post.]

stalag13This didn’t stop people from arguing about it, often quite nastily. A lot of it was social. The scenes that existed were often projects or projections of groups of friends, mostly high school or college age. These sets are fractious at the best of times, so it’s not at all surprising that charges of apostasy of various kinds might be made, especially when there was the possibility of amplifying them by having them printed in MRR, or Flipside, or whatever. These social dynamics synergized, once again, with the fact that the culture being appropriated was diffuse and acephalus. And so the grousing and griping spun on and on without ever really bottoming out or discovering very much that was fundamental.

Ultimately, the work of defining what punk was and wasn’t was left unfinished because the moment of its realization was missed. Green Day came along, and grunge, and the powers of the recording industry once again became convinced that there was some coin to be made. What it all meant became a matter of supreme indifference to any but the most neurotic purists and zine writers. Just what was punk? “Let’s make lots of money, and worry about it later.” So it has continued, although renewed corporate interest has not, in fact, managed to kill off the residual fragments of the punk scenes of what you might call the “intercommercial” era (i.e. the period between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s during which records types didn’t care very much about underground music). And still the devotees of crust and other abiding punk forms know what they are doing and with whom they share common ground without having to have an overarching theory to explain it.

And so, perhaps, it has come to this: punk was (and is), at its heart, an absence. If punk ever meant anything, if it was ever worth anything, it was because it created a space in which identities to could be created and explored (mostly) outside the hegemony of the dominant cultural forms. This did not mean that these identities were created sui generis. Nor did it mean that coercion was entirely absent. Some of the identities that people created were racist, sexist, homophobic, or chauvinist, the persistent influence of these tendencies distorted and constrained the cultural space of the underground. But still the space endured, not unique and certainly imperfect, but still a place where kids who were weird, or gay, or feminist, or otherwise marginal could take a hand in making themselves rather than merely reproducing images of what they were supposed to be.

A Note to My Seventeen Year Old Self

Posted in Dispatches on October 20, 2016 by Magadh

I am cruising down I90 east of Cleveland in a 1984 Mercedes with Martyrdöd’s Paranoia cranked up so loud the windows are vibrating. And I’m thinking of you, the earlier version of myself. In truth, you’re always with me. I wear (mostly) the same clothes, listen to (mostly) the same music, have (mostly) the same politics. But things have changed too. I’ve learned one or two things and I dearly wish that I could go back in time and tell you.

Of course I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t know that you would have the wisdom to listen, even if you knew the message was coming from your own self (better or perhaps merely older)? I like to think that I don’t have many illusions about the capacities of boys of 17 to learn things in the abstract. But since you are still with me perhaps there is some use to the exercise, a sort of settling of accounts.

You’re never going to straighten out. The you that is here now is the you that you are. Revel in it.

Punk rock is the right choice. You’ve already met lots of interesting people and seen things your peers could hardly imagine. You’ve met anarchists and squatters and hunt saboteurs, and all kinds of other crazy people. You’ll see so many more bizarre and worthwhile things, I hardly know where to start (so I won’t bother). Some will be exhilarating, others really frightening, but all of them will be interesting and worth seeing. You’ll meet a lot of jerks, but you’ll meet so many more of the right sort of people, the kind who have the courage to look at the dark side of the world and to work to make it a better place. You’re not alone.

Shut your mouth. It’s really difficult to learn with your mouth open. But do ask lots of questions. Learning about other people is probably the most important thing you can do as a human being. You don’t understand what’s behind other people’s eyes. Let them tell you. Maybe then they’ll be interested in what’s behind yours.

Don’t assume that just because people are wrong they’re stupid. Also, don’t assume that just because people are right that it’s for the right reasons. Stay calm. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t worry about convincing people. Try to learn from them.

Listen to the women in your life. There are a lot of powerful souls among them. They’re different than you, not in that idiotically essentialist way that popular culture tries to present them, but because they have different life experiences than you’ve had. They have important things to tell you. You need to hear them. Some of it will not be pleasant. Suck it up. Remember that you can share their struggle in the sense of being an ally, but they don’t need you to it for them. You’ll need to step out of the way and let them do their thing. Do it, and share their joy in the things that they create.

Drink less. Not that you’re an out of control drinker or have the fundamentally pernicious relationship to alcohol of so many of your friends, but it does take a toll. Also, you’re angry. Maybe you’ve got a right to be, all things considered. Alcohol creates a pathway for that anger to manifest. The less that happens the better.

Don’t waste your time with drugs. A little weed is alright now and then, but anything else is just a waste of time and money. You have less time than you think, and money is hard to come by.

You’re a melancholy person, and that will always be a part of you, hardwired into you, alcohol or no. Melancholia will be as much a friend as an enemy. It will feed on your darkest moods if you let it, blotting out the sun and pushing away from you exactly the sort of people you need. But it will also impel you to be creative. It will gnaw at your self-satisfaction, prompting you to do things and make things, if only to chase away the darkness.

Be mindful of the world around you. Often it’s grim, but in places it’s beautiful too. Later on you’ll read these words by Herman Melville and understand: “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!  Never dream with thy hand on the helm!  Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly.  Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp – all others but liars!”

There are probably a lot of other things I could tell you. But it’s for the best that you figure most of it out on your own. I made it to where I am without knowing most of this stuff, or at least not having thought it through very clearly at the times that it mattered. But if you just try to be civilized to other people you won’t go too far wrong

The Reading Life

Posted in Dispatches on October 18, 2016 by Magadh

gaimanI’ve been reading the first couple of essays in the new collection of Neil Gaiman’s
nonfiction writing, The View from the Cheap Seats. There will certainly be more to be said about this when I’ve had a chance to really tuck into it, but the first essay, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries” is on a topic close to my heart.

The first thing that I should probably mention about this is that I’m pretty sure that I’m the only librarian in the English-speaking world who didn’t read this essay when it was first published in 2013. I don’t have anything that would qualify as an excuse. I wasn’t really familiar with Gaiman’s work at that time (although I read a lot of comics I was never a big fan of The Sandman), but I was a librarian and I now remember lots of people talking about it. Anyway, I am a librarian and so I’m pretty sympathetic to what he has to say on the topic from the off.

I am also about as voracious and obsessive a reader as you will ever meet. I read in bed and on the can and in the shower (in addition to all the other normal places to read). Back when I lived in Portland and used to walk places more than I do now, I perfected the skill of reading while walking. I’m impelled to read constantly by my fear that sooner or later people will pick up on the fact that I’m not nearly as bright as I might seem at first glance. Maybe if I can just squeeze a few more books in I can maintain the facade a little longer.

I mostly read nonfiction, partly for reasons related to my fear of being caught out, and partly because I’m convinced that the world is about to collapse into utter anarchy (or worse) and I’d like to get a leg up on the signs of impending doom. But I also read comics and graphic novels, even the occasional science fiction novel. It’s hard for me to stay concentrated on fiction though, once again because I can’t shake the feeling that we are on the verge of a new dark age.

Having said all that, reading Gaiman’s essay on librarianship was really quite pleasant, even life affirming. He puts his finger on a number of the things that I think make the job eminently worth doing. One thing one discovers as a reference librarian is that one is the helper of last resort. For no money at all people can come in (or call you up) and as you every sort of question that people with more power, or money, or with better things to do generally aren’t interested in helping them with. That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel pretty good about your life choices, at least from time to time.

At one point in his talk, Gaiman mentions that for-profit prison companies use rates of illiteracy as a back of the envelope way of estimating their future needs for capacity. Ok, one should probably not make too much of this. Crime is a complex sociological issue, and it’s at least arguable that illiteracy is a much a symptom of other conditions as criminality is. By the same token we shouldn’t make too much of the salutary effects of literacy. One group that was statistically over-represented among the leaders of Nazi mobile killing squad was holders of doctorates, so there’s that.

Still, I feel like there are a lot of society’s ills that would be ameliorated (if perhaps not cured) if people would simply more and with more variety. Gaiman’s talk makes a passionate case for reading fiction, and I can’t really argue with me. But I also feel like the world would really be improved if people would read more nonfiction books. And not just nonfiction generally, but books by people with whom one disagrees. Reading something that one disagrees with is a lot more healthy than reading things with which one knows fro the outset that one agrees. People should do rather more of this, even if reading things by people with whom one agrees also has virtue.

I don’t bother arguing with people very much. This will certainly come as a shock to people who knew me in the days of my youth. When I was in my teens and twenties I would argue with people about the color of the sky, often in the most bloodthirsty style. I’m kind of surprised I have any friends left at all from those days. But since then I’ve really given it up. When people offer to argue with me (particularly about politics) I’m reminded of an old W.C. Fields short I saw as a boy in which an insurance salesman is trying to entice him to buy a policy by listing the various benefits he’ll get if he dies. At one point, Fields says, “What do I get if I live, a velocipede?” This sums up my feelings on the matter. I could argue with with, but what do I get for taking the energy to convince you?

Nowadays I really won’t talk politics with anyone who I haven’t assured myself isn’t crazy or stupid, and that’s a process that (for me) often takes years. I don’t mind writing about things, and if people want to offer up reasoned commentary I’m willing to argue on that basis, but it’s because this is a medium that lends itself to the provision of references and other background material, rather than relying on bare assertion. In any case, this too sums up what I like about being a librarian: I can find you the information that you’re looking for. To the extent that I can offer that service to people I can make what’s left of American democracy just a little bit better.



Posted in Dispatches, News and Notes on October 16, 2016 by Magadh

I’m working on a large piece for centering on the work of Wolfgang Streeck and Paul Mason. I’m going to be posting the extra bits of my research here (along with the normally expected quantities of reviews, interviews, blag, etc.). This should start happening in the next few days.

For starters, here’s a link to James Boyle’s, “The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain” (2003). That will do to be going on with.

Under construction…

Posted in Uncategorized on October 16, 2016 by Magadh

New content coming soon. I think my brain is finally working again…