Stevphen Shukaitis on Thu, 24 May 2012 16:33:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Punkademics, Up the nerds!

Back Patches and Elbow Patches
Zack Furness

From the introduction to Punkademics:

The position being taken is not to be mistaken for attempted education or righteous accusation.
-Operation Ivy, “Room Without a Window”

I think the moment at which I realized I was actually turning into a college professor was not on the first day I taught a class in 1999, but when I was listening to an old Operation Ivy tape about a year later and found myself wanting to sit the band’s singer, Jesse Michaels, down to have a frank discussion. Specifically, I wanted to ask him why, in a song written to both illuminate the politics of ideology (“walls made of opinions through which we speak and never listen”) and express the need for open-mindedness and self-reflexivity, would he choose to intentionally denounce the educational function of his lyrics from the outset? Not being a complete idiot nor unfamiliar with the band, I obviously realized that the song “Room Without a Window” (quoted above) was penned by Michaels when he was in his late teens, which is around the time when years of schooling and top-down authority have unfortunately succeeded at the task of turning education – or at least the compulsory, state-sanctioned version – into something from which young people want to run; I imagine all the more so for the sizeable number of kids in the late ‘80s East Bay (California) punk scene whose parents, like Michaels’ dad, were college professors. But whether the lyric intentionally gestures in this direction or is self-consciously ironic is hardly the issue. Indeed, even if the first line just sounded cool when he wrote it, the point here is that I wasn’t singing along, tapping out the beat (as ex-drummers are annoyingly prone to do), or even just engaging in the kind of run-of-the-mill lyrical analysis that has been the bread and butter for both punk fanzine writers and music journalists for over three decades. Rather, it’s that I was busy concocting some bizarre scenario in my head that, if allowed to play out in real life, would have undoubtedly translated into the world’s most boring and pedantic conversation with one of my punk heroes.

As if it didn’t feel weird enough to catch myself pursuing this rather strange line of hypothetical inquiry at the breakfast table one morning, the sensation was heightened when I also realized, perhaps for the first time, that my own internal monologue was now being structured around concepts and jargon from my graduate seminars. Since when, I thought to myself, did I start to throw around – let alone think with – phrases like “illuminate the politics of ideology”? Was I becoming the kind of person who ends up nonchalantly remarking upon the “narrative tensions” in a Jawbreaker song? Or using the word oeuvre to describe Bad Brains’ discography? Was I heading down a path where I would eventually not even be able to go for a bike ride without theorizing it? Just then, as if the universe wanted to accent the point in as cartoonish a manner as possible, I narrowly avoided stumbling over my cat while rising from the table, and I managed to spill half a mug of coffee onto the stack of student papers I had been grading. Muttering to one’s self? Check. Coffee stained papers? Check. Analyzing one’s music collection through the lenses of critical pedagogy and rhetorical theory? Check. Shabby outfit? Certainly. Disheveled hair and off kilter eyeglasses? Indeed. Exhibiting behaviors that one might objectively identify as ‘wacky’ or ‘nutty’? Check.

It was official. All I needed now, I thought to myself, was the kind of jacket where the patches are sewn nicely onto the elbows instead of silk screened and stitched across the back with dental floss.

Elbow Patches and Back Patches
Twelve years later I still don’t have one of those professorial tweed jackets, though I did manage to attain the job, the eccentricities, and the shock of salt-and-pepper hair that would compliment one quite nicely. And despite my initial anxieties over the prospects of compromising my then-entrenched punk ethics by turning into a stuffy academic, I actually ended up spending more time playing in bands and participating in various aspects of DIY punk culture as a graduate student and eventual professor than I did when I was younger. While far from seamless, I’ve often seen the relationship between these two ‘worlds’ as dialectical, though at first this mainly consisted of scrutinizing every new set of readings and concepts I learned in school through my own increasingly politicized worldview: a punk subjectivity that I fancied as something of a “bullshit detector.” But fairly quickly, though, my immersion in critical theory, cultural studies, feminism and political theory started to help me hold up a mirror to sub-/countercultural politics and to generally unpack some of the bullshit that is often embedded within our own bullshit detectors, as it were. Part of what facilitated this process, aside from personal experience and the guidance of some older friends, was getting exposed to the broader gamut of political punk and hardcore and to the range of writers, teachers, artists and activists who, in publications like Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Maximumrocknroll (MRR), Clamor and Stay Free!, not only connected many of the issues and concerns I’d previously encountered within different spheres, they also complicated and problematized (in the good way) a lot of my taken for granted assumptions about punk and the proliferation of ideas in general. It was through these channels – DIY punk and DIY publishing – as opposed to the classroom, that the relationships between politics, popular culture, education, and everyday life first started to make sense to me.

As crucial as the composition of these ingredients was to my own development and positionality as a teacher, writer and ‘musician’ (a term I use very loosely), I am hardly the first person to test out the recipe and I’m certainly not one of the best cooks. Indeed, my real interest in punk/academic border transgressions was not borne of my own maneuverings, but from learning about and meeting punk musicians who had dual careers as professional nerds (I use the term lovingly; it is my job description after all) and reading sophisticated work from writers who seemed as equally sure footed in zine columns and basement shows as they did in a theory heavy journal publications, political organizing committees, or in front of podiums lecturing to graduate students at prestigious research universities. In addition to being generally interested in what other people have done (or aspired to do) with the kinds of energies, knowledges and tensions generated through their involvement with, or their reflections upon, both punk music and culture, I had a personal interest in wanting to meet more of these folks and to pick their brain about their paths toward careers as nerdy rockers or punk professors (given that either one sounded ideal to me). I was also intensely curious about the ways in which people reconciled their interests and understood the dynamics between two very different ‘scenes.’ I wanted to hear what other people had to say about scholarship on punk, or their relationships to band mates and fans (if applicable). And broadly speaking, I wanted to know what kind of sense people made of their punk/academic situation; whether it was something they analyzed, disparaged, incorporated into their work, trumpeted, or simply took in stride. What kind of stories did they have? What kinds of insights about punk and teaching have they drawn from their experiences or analyses?

Unlike the prospects of time traveling to an Operation Ivy show in 1990, the possibilities for actually starting some conversations around these topics was quite real, and a few years ago I started the process with the aim of garnering essays for the book you are now reading. I asked people to contribute work that was either about punk specifically, or the intersections between punk and higher education, whether in the form of biographical pieces or chapters devoted to teaching and pedagogy. To keep things simple, I took the approach that punks of yore utilized when contacting bands they liked: sending letters. My interest was less in nostalgia (they were e-mails, after all) than in making contact with people whose work I admired and otherwise beginning what would become a long experiment. That is to say, part of my reason for doing the book was because, first and foremost, I wanted to see if it was possible. While I had long been attuned the fact that there were some professors and many more graduate students who, like me (circa 2005, when I hatched the idea for this book), simultaneously played in bands while they taught classes and worked on their degrees, I often wondered about whether there are a lot of “us” out there. By “us” I mean punkademics, or the professors, graduate students, and other PhDs who, in some meaningful or substantive way, either once straddled or continue to bridge the worlds of punk and academia through their own personal experiences, their scholarship, or some combination thereof.

Punk Discourses
Punk is neither a homogenous ‘thing’ nor is it reducible to a specific time, location, sound or a select number of vinyl records and live performances. It’s various meanings, as any self-respecting punk knows all too well, are subject to wild fluctuation and widespread debate. One might say that it’s because punk shapes – and is also shaped by – specific kinds of question askers, music makers, thought provokers, organizers, shit talkers, writers, artists, and teachers. At their best, the combinations of people, places, cultural practices, social relationships, art and ideas that co-constitute punk are rife with possibilities: creating new kinds of music or reveling in the ecstatic moments at the best shows; forging bonds of group solidarity and personal identity; carving out non-commercial spaces for free expression and the staking out of positions; and pushing people toward a participatory, ‘bottom up’ view of culture. Through the often conflicting accounts and histories of punk, one can identify the ebb and flow of countless scenes, interwoven subcultures, and a broader ‘Do it Yourself’ (DIY) counterculture in which people put ethical and political ideas into practice by using music and other modes of cultural production/expression to highlight both the frustrations and banalities of everyday life, as well as the ideas and institutions that need to be battled if there is any hope of living in a less oppressive world. And crucially, people have a lot of fun doing it. Those lucky enough to have experienced some of what I’ve just sketched out know what it feels like to sense that punk really can create something new in the shell of the old, to poach a phrase from the Wobblies.

At its worst, punk can be and has been a fashion show, a cultural ghetto, a minor league circuit for corporate entertainers, a merchandise peddling aggregate of aspiring capitalist hustlers, and a constellation of practices that perpetuate varying degrees of machismo, sexism, homophobia, white privilege, classism, hyper-individualism, anti-intellectualism, passive conformity, and at times, both conservative religious dogma and racist nationalism. And like the worst trends to emerge under the banner of cultural studies – the academic field in which I work – punk’s incarnates have similarly been known to promote sloppy politics while championing ‘resistance’ in all of its self-styled affairs, regardless of whether such gestures (or fanciful arrangements of clothing, tattoos or words) bear a resemblance to anything like substantive political action, meaningful community engagement, or tangible social change. In this guise, ‘resistance’, ‘rebellion’, and of course, ‘revolution’, become just another set of buzzwords chirped in slogans, animated in bad songs and contrived writing, and emblazoned on t-shirts without a hint of Billy Bragg’s sharp wit: “So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a t-shirt away.”

The various prospects and pitfalls associated with punk (I include hardcore in this designation throughout unless noted otherwise) are constant reminders that the stories we tell about it are always being folded into converging and often competing discourses about what punk really means, what it does or doesn’t do, and why it is or isn’t culturally significant, politically relevant, and so on. As both an academic and someone who spent roughly thirteen years drifting in and out of the punk scene (admittedly more ‘out’ in recent years), I’m invested in both the kinds of stories that get told about punk as well as the manner in they are put to work, as it were. Therefore, I think it is important to note from the outset that my interest in assembling Punkademics is neither to tell the grand story of punk (an impossibly arrogant and pointless task) nor to produce the scholarly cipher through which all of punk’s secret meanings can be decrypted. Academics should not be seen as the authoritative voices capable of explaining punk to the masses, and I have no interest in presenting them as such. In fact, I have always been rather conflicted about how punk music and DIY punk culture get taken up by academics in the first place.

As a teacher, I tend to see punk – like all other cultural phenomena – as a messy but nonetheless fascinating cluster of things that can be analyzed, dissected and debated. Depending on the specific course, I’ve incorporated aspects of punk in my lesson plans to talk about everything from the underground press and the political economy of the media industry, to the role that punk music – like hip hop – plays in cultivating meaningful narratives about “the city” and the importance of space and place in everyday life. And quite frequently, punk comes in handy when I need to give concrete examples to illustrate or clarify what certain social and cultural theorists mean when they throw around phrases like cultural production, articulation, hegemony, resistance, commodification, cooptation, and of course, subculture. In addition to being pedagogically useful, I also get a certain degree of satisfaction in knowing that members of the bands I discuss in class would be alternatively delighted or mortified by the idea.

However, my level of comfort with the melding of punk and academia decreases quite rapidly when punk becomes an object of study unto itself. As Roger Sabin notes in his introduction to Punk Rock, So What?, one of the main problems with scholarship on punk is the overreliance on unquestioned assumptions about punk itself and, overall, the “narrowness of the frame of reference.” Along with what he describes as the “pressures to romanticize,” Sabin suggests that the impulses and trends in punk scholarship foster the development of certain kind of “orthodoxy” that structures what it is possible to say, or most likely not say, about punk’s history, its conjunctures with other ideas and artistic practices, and, I would add, its current formations, and its possible future(s). Like many of the LP records that fit squarely and safely within the parameters of a punk’s splintered subgenres, a number of the books and essays that fall under the umbrella of this ‘orthodoxy’ have their distinct merits. Nevertheless, his point about the constrictive qualities of scholarship on punk is well taken and, broadly speaking, rather understated. Because while there are plenty of exceptions (including excellent work published by this book’s contributors), a significant amount of academic writing, conference presentations and the like are authored by people who – despite being fans of punk music and passionate about the topic – seem to have limited knowledge of punk music and DIY culture, and a level of engagement with punk scenes that is more akin to casual tourism than active participation. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop people from feeling entitled to make assumptions, lodge critiques, and draw conclusions based on what, more or less, amounts to an analysis of punk ‘texts.’ To be sure, there are a variety of things that broadcast this kind of work.

My position, however, is not based on some naïve desire to preserve the sacredness of punk (Hot Topic put the final, pyramid-studded nail in that coffin years ago), nor do I think that people who are totally immersed in their activities or communities are necessarily in the best position to speak thoughtfully about their endeavors, or to critically reflect on the social or political significance of them; sometimes the exact opposite is true. Rather, my perspective is based upon what I see as a relatively uncontroversial point: whether due to shoddy research, distance from the punk scene, or harmless excitement for a topic tackled earnestly though wrong-headedly, the bottom line is that most academics simply miss the mark when it comes to punk music and culture. It would seem that I am good company on this point, even amongst fellow academics. John Charles Goshert, for example, argues that academic studies “tend toward the uninformed, if not careless, homogenizing of styles, personalities, and locales under the name ‘punk.’” David Muggleton expresses similar anxieties over the academicization of punk when, in the introduction to his own book, he describes his first encounter with Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style: “I fought my way through...and was left feeling that it had absolutely nothing to say about my life as I had once experienced it...The ‘problem’ lay not in myself and my failure to recognize what had ostensibly been the reality of my situation, but in the way the book appropriated its subject matter.”

Stories matter
Put simply, the stories we tell about punk matter. In the greater scheme of things, there is clearly much less at stake in the narration of punk than there is, for example, in the stories told about immigration, Indigenous land claims, prisons, or the philosophical and economic underpinnings of Neoliberalism. Nevertheless, they matter. Part of the reason why is because, like the stories told about other cultural practices and art forms, the relevant work on punk affects the ways we understand its specific histories, its present formations, and its possible future(s). Consequently, when the complexities and nuances of punk music, aesthetics and identities are ignored in lieu of sweeping claims and a reliance on problematic assumptions, this has a significant bearing on the ways in which people conceptualize, interpret and draw conclusions about the ‘politics of punk’, youth subcultures, and perhaps the social functions of art and music, as well. The concern here is thus not only the fidelity of the narratives – as in whether the accounts (of bands, scenes, events, etc.) are accurate and truthful – it is also a matter of who gets to speak for whom: whose stories are told and whose are silenced, and perhaps most importantly, who gets to shape public knowledge(s) that inform the ways in which we collectively remember people, events, institutions, ideas, cultural practices and cultural history. In addition, this body of knowledge is never only about punk in the first place: in academic research alone one finds discussions of punk situated within larger conversations about the music industry, the changing social status of ‘youth’ in the late 20th Century, the formation of identity, the nature of consumption, and the contentious dynamics of class, race, gender, sexuality and religion that are part of punks’ everyday relationships and also addressed within their own songs, musings, dialogues and debates.

My point here is that the story and mythology of punk get reified over the years as much in academic writing as elsewhere. And it is not just dedicated books and peer-reviewed articles that do this kind of cultural work; it is also the hundreds of casual references that academics make to punk (for example in books on the 1970s or the Reagan Era) that simultaneously support the dominant narratives and constrain the possibilities of analyzing it without the compulsion to either validate its heroes or delineate its pure moment of inception. Because what gets missed, for instance, in the habitual focus on punk’s origins, its shining stars, its hottest locations, and its most obvious but nonetheless vital contributions – such as punks’ amplification (with all that the term implies) of independent music and art – are the everyday practices, processes, struggles, ruptures and people that make it so interesting in the first place.

Up the nerds!
One of my primary goals with Punkademics is to encourage a marked shift away from the punk-as-style paradigm that has become so commonplace in the wake of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style but also from a number of the binary oppositions scholars have used to reduce ‘punk’ into a static, singular thing that can be mapped along an axis of success vs. failure, resistance vs. recuperation, authenticity vs. inauthenticity, and so on. Instead of producing another series of instrumental readings of punk that are strictly concerned with what it ultimately does or does not do, or what it definitively means or doesn’t mean at one specific moment, or within the confines of one specific scene or musical recording, I’m more inclined to think about what possibilities emerge within and through it. Scholarship on punk has sometimes pointed in this direction, though it’s typically focused on which kinds of musical and stylistic hybrids become imaginable or possible through the production of punk music and culture, or somewhat differently, which aesthetic and artistic trends are rendered most visible in punk’s history or that of its precursors. While I am interested in these linkages and the kind of work that, for example, contributors to the book Punk Rock, So What? take pains to highlight, I have always been much more curious about the kinds of subjectivities, people and communities that become imaginable or possible – or perhaps even probable – through DIY punk, i.e. the “vectors of punk that strive to escape models of production and consumption otherwise omnipresent in the entertainment industry.”

A fruitful way to approach these interrelationships, as I’ve tried to demonstrate with this very book, is to consider some of the ways that punk maps onto or even organizes certain constellations of cultural practice, artistic expression, ethics, and notions of community. But crucially, I think this begins by reframing punk as an object of study and asking some rather different questions about peoples’ relationship to it. Through a combination of essays, interviews, biographical sketches, and artwork, one of the aims of this collection is to do this by way of example as opposed to merely stacking critique on top of critique. While not without its own limitations, Punkademics tries to offer more nuanced perspectives on various aspects of punk and hardcore – and in particular DIY punk music and culture – that stem from contributors’ academic backgrounds as well as their collective participation within and experience of punk scenes.

But of equal importance is the attention focused in the opposite direction, which is back at the university, the classroom, and both the norms and ethics that get embedded into higher education. Given the fact that little research has been done about where punks end up or what their career paths and adventures (as well as struggles and failures) might tell us about punk or why it matters, this book offers some tangible examples that speak to these concerns, inasmuch as colleges and universities function as some of the places where people with ‘punk’ values can ostensibly thrive, or more accurately, where they can potentially put their ethics and ideas into practice; though not without great effort, considerable friction, and at times, complete train wrecks. The idea behind Punkademics is thus not only to offer some different perspectives on punk, broadly speaking, but to also tell some entirely distinct stories about academics and punks themselves, and how their priorities and passions get reconfigured by and through their experiences as theorists, artists, activists, educators and misfits working amidst the often tumultuous landscape of the modern university/edufactory.
1, 2, 3, 4, Go!

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