Punk and Philosophy
For me these two P’s have always been ideal bedfellows and their connection has been something which has always intrigued me. My personal journey across this colourful terrain began with my first fanzine “Eat The Rich” back in the early 80’s in which I quizzed Dick Lucas (Subhumans) and Steve Drewett (Newtown Neurotics) amongst others about what their take on the ethos of ‘punk rock’ was all about. Those were the grey days of Thatcher’s Britain when “Gotcha” (Crass) and “How Does it Feel to be the Mother of 1,000 Dead” (Crass) provided the best tools for a young thinker to interrogate the reality of the Falklands War – if Nietzsche philosophised with the hammer, I did it with my one single a week, cut price budget version of punk rock.
Punk as philosophy, art as punk, art as philosophy – a true triangulation of 3 basic foodstuffs for contemplation, by definition awkward to pin down yet radically informing my understanding of this strange place which we long to, but never really can call home (see Weakerthans – “Left and Leaving”). From its Greco-Latin roots ‘philosophy’ (philo and sophia) means the ‘love’ of ‘wisdom’ or ‘understanding’, and punk rock was a viral ‘truth drug’ injected into our veins via the syringes which arrived through the post from Rough Trade.
Philosophy, unlike punk rock, is too often framed as the private possession of ivory tower intellectuals, or ‘too difficult for you and me’, or purposefully written in a style that infuriates more than it informs (try Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and then Derrida if you need your own proof). Verbal obscurity in my punk rock lexicon is almost always a sign of mental confusion (what an outrageous claim the academy screams!) so hopefully that will not be the case with this introductory column in which we are going to do our own little bit of punk rock deconstruction a la Derrida. By subscribing to the words on the inside cover of Zoundz debut single “Can’t Cheat Karma”/”Subvert” ‘anarchy (read punk rock) is not a form of government it is a state of mind’. By acknowledging the practice rather than the dogma/belief system, we rub shoulders with Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘philosophy is an activity not a body of doctrine’ – i.e. a journey rather than an end.
So to offer you some compass bearings before I launch into this initial splurge of consciousness, let me briefly explain the curious space that I now inhabit? Well over 20 years since the demise of my “Eat The Rich” fanzine and many air miles later along the crooked highway to middle age obscurity, my take on things punk and philosophical is the subject of interrogation by others.
Firstly I have dared to sin against the ‘holier than thou for a year or two’ (Dead Kennedys – Chickenshit Conformist) attitude of ‘punk’ rock priesthood by releasing a Skrewdriver track on a local “Ugly Truth about Blackpool” compilation (read either Blackpool Rox fanzine or the HYPERLINK "http://www.jsntgm.com" www.jsntgm.com website if you are interested in understanding – or perhaps you might just wanna jump to a quick conclusion, but remember they don’t always make for happy landings!).
Secondly I am a surprise new entrant to the University academy by teaching budding undergraduates about politics and philosophy, and being a long serving devotee of a hopelessly under-achieving D.I.Y. ‘for the love of’ UK punk label, I am now curiously re-defined in that position of teaching ‘authority’…. Distributing ideas rather than vinyl and CD’s.
OK – now that’s out of the way (you might have already switched off out of indignation – or have your teeth sharpened looking for my next heinous crime that can be lambasted) this is the first of a series of short essays which will focus on aspects of philosophy and what Tipper Gore so beautifully described to Jello Biafra as ‘the punk rock’ (Jello Biafra – “No More Cocoons” also “Erase Today” – Rock’n’Roll). Personal reasons for doing it are to rain check myself (easy) entertain you (not so easy) and open pathways of meaning and understanding (more difficult still) into what I perceive to be a bland consumerist age of meaninglessness. In a time when we are hoodwinked by the false certainty of mathematics and Newtownian certainty, I thus embark on a short yet romantic Derridean quest to rediscover the ‘non-linear’ inside the ‘linear’ McWorld of now, with the assistance of all those ‘weird’ song lyrics which have flashed around my mind and through my consciousness over the years … So my holy trinity of ‘philosophical’ ideas into which I will now briefly delve are 1. the binary (opposition thinking), 2. the quiz show (biopolitical tyranny) and 3. the end of world poverty - as we know it Jim (Live 8).
Issue 1 is introduced perfectly by “Something I learned today black and white is always grey” (Husker Du – S/T off “Zen Arcade”) which is a stunningly simple yet vital lyric. Like all good interventions it speaks through the gaps of what is said and not said. It reminds us that life is nuanced, full of shades of opinion, and we can only ever inhabit the ‘grey space’ where Nietzsche claimed ‘there are no facts only interpretations’. Arundhati Roy’s mention in ‘Many Septembers’ about the failure of the imagination is exactly what Bob Mould is touching on with this lyric, and this is what I want to explain by talking about ‘binary thinking’. We live in an unimaginative world dominated by binary opposites – every society (as Friedrich claims) has its version of good and evil, and these are the unstable foundations around which we tether our weak, insipid and dull formulations of reality, and hence morality.
For instance lets look at two examples of opposites – a) lightness and darkness and b) life and death. Imagine for a second there was no such thing as light – everything was all a stygian darkness. How then would you begin to go about describing darkness? Darkness would be all we ever knew and without light there would be no opposite to allow us to define it.
Similarly in terms of b) life and death – imagine as that everybody/thing lived forever and didn’t die, there was therefore no concept of death. Then how would we explain life? No convenient benchmark (death) would exist which would allow us to do this. Without death, no life – get my drift? This need for opposites takes us into the realm of how we define not only phenomena but more importantly for the punk rock ourselves! Without the human dynamic of relations with other humans we would cease to be ‘the beast with red cheeks’ (Nietzsche again – we would have nothing to blush about – a simple example of human-ness). This ‘self’ (i.e. you the reader) and the ‘other’ (i.e. all the other people) dichotomy is an absolutely central concept at the heart of philosophy which thinkers from Kant onwards have struggled with. It is far too much for us to get into now, so lets just be content to have introduced it via ‘binaries’.
Let’s get back to binaries and see it how it leads us into our second area of ‘philosophical enquiry’ (2. the quiz show – the biopolitical tyranny). A key thing with this ‘binary’/‘other’ conundrum is that we cannot seem to help ourselves from defining ourselves in terms of each other: friends, family, colleagues - our mental constructions of them and how we think they perceive us. Without the binary ‘other’ (i.e. other people) how can the self exist (i.e. how would we start to understand, categorize and define ourselves)? Detaching the judgemental strings that define others as extras playing a part in our personal binary dream journey is seen by many thinkers as the first steps towards self realisation, understanding and liberation (see Penny Rimbaud – “Shibboleth”) from the ideas and concepts which frame our reality, and deaden our imagination and spontaneity. This leads me conveniently on to the second concept of our ‘quiz show culture’.
Quick diversion - Answer these 10 easy questions and see how stupid you really are? Flick through the pages of this fashionable glossy and help us to re-create the new you? Choose your top 10 sitcom moments, rock tunes, films, books and holiday destinations of all time? If you don’t want to go to the trouble of thinking turn on the TV and we will allow our quiz show contestants to do it for you! Do you not feel these quiz show/ game show/telephone phone-in/reality TV gimmicks are really testing and interrogating YOU ? – OK back to the ‘philosophy’ of this strange aspect of our society which I call a ‘biopolitical tyranny’ (the concept of ‘bio-politics’ and the ‘bio-political’ is an important and increasingly discussed political concept, and is the preserve of French philosopher Michel Foucault 1920-1984)
My modern take on all this is that Sartre’s ‘sickness of society’ has moved from the ‘bad faith’ of the middle class to the all embracing suffocating tyranny of the media, which affects us all. The media (TV, Radio, Internet, Newspapers, Magazines, Junk Mail and ALL Advertising) forces responses from us every second we are exposed to it. This does not mean we verbally or mentally respond every time we see Carol Vorderman on a TV advert begging us to take out ‘just one more loan’ or a radio phone beseeching us to call and tell everyone what we think about ‘illegal immigration’ (oxymoron as we are all immigrants – and a great ‘othering’ tool in the biopolitical handbook). Likewise every time our kids kill cops playing Grand Theft Auto (the Supersize version) does not mean they are gonna be cop killers either now or later in life. But what all this exposure to media (in its many, many varieties) does, is have a significant impact on how we frame ourselves, others and therefore ‘our version of the world’.
We are all victims of this, although we all willingly buy into it to a certain degree (unless you totally drop out and live a reclusive life like the Unabomber) and our perceptions which are by definition moulded by what we see, hear, understand, feel, think and perceive, inevitably force us to match up to our ‘own’ (how much it can really be our ‘own’ is another big debate) definition of moral norms in what is best described as a ‘biopolitical tyranny’.
Our inner critic is motivated by all these ideas and images to have those big internal conversations about how we match up in terms of what we think, imagine and believe - this can breed anxiety and the sheer instant demand for answers (a la radio phone in) can starve you of the oxygen of space for reflection to what are not always instantly answerable questions? So the lesson of this tyranny is: always be careful what you say, how you say it and regulate your behaviour to the audience, the individual and the circumstance – hey, it’s your own version of celebrity inner mind showbiz – where you can be in ‘control’ and play your own crowd, just like the media ‘call you into existence’ by addressing, cajoling, prompting, convincing, infuriating, inspiring and judging you. Analyse, regulate, control, define, judge. . . a circular argument, a state of infinite regress – a state of ‘biopolitical tyranny’.
Judging ourselves against others and how they look, act, feel, answer, think, laugh and behave is ‘terrifyingly normal’ (Hannh Arendt) and therefore only natural (natural is a dangerous word big users of ‘natural’ were Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer – natural sold in syringes by those who rule – a very effective drug). As Goethe said ‘there are none so enslaved, as those who falsely believe themselves to be free’. So ‘natural’ they might say – that’s ideology we might say! Constantly checking ourselves out and how we all measure up to each other in this ‘strictly money and numbers game’ (Billy Bragg) is the moral fibre of any/everywhere, defined by cheap insurance, personal injury finance, and that low cost ‘loan to end all loans’ sold by a smiling Carol Vorderman – “plenty with a license to prostitute” (Leatherface – “Dead Industrial Atmosphere”).
Hit return quickly - ‘I’m not one to gossip, but . . .’ delineates the inner paradox of this lie which is desperate to tell us the truth. We already know that we can’t be all that we are supposed to expect of ourselves (although it’s difficult to admit that our perceptions are quite often fantastical) – that nothing is perfect … even Cartesian mathematics never really added up – without zero and infinity it was good but not great. So as Heisenberg pointed out we are all radically intertwined - the ‘observer and the observed’ – we play both roles, nay infinite multiple roles in which one cannot exist without the other, and the views of both cannot exist independent of the other – this is Baudrillard’s ‘ecstacy of communication’ in which nothing seems real or actually is real.
As Curtis White so eloquently articulates in The Middle Mind the first gesture of accepting this ideology is to say, “I’m not ideology”, which along with ‘entertainment’ and ‘orthodoxy’ are the three great antagonists of the imagination. Jihad vs McWorld – ‘which side are you on boys?’ (Billy Bragg) – oh you must have a side, have an opinion, have a view, how otherwise can you position yourself in this world of ‘identity politics’ where you are now ‘what you think’ rather than ‘what you eat’? Playing and thinking outside the rules is just not cricket. Maybe it is time for a Benjaminian ‘Great Refusal’ against the ‘content providers’ that define, close down and crush the possibility of forming potential alternatives?
Hey but it’s not all that bad – lets move on to point 3) and look at the ‘great’ event that was Live 8. Sir Bob whispering in the ear of the prince. The consumerist adman’s dream – join in and watch world poverty disappear as white middle aged politicians, billionaires, celebrities and pop-stars have a private discussion between themselves about the problems the poor black people have in Africa – oh and those unnecessary black people that were corralled into the Eden Project – “The Biggest Lie” (Husker Du).
Doesn’t matter if your frames of reference are out of kilter, because now you can kick back in Hyde Park listen to the music of the non challenging, suck on a cool bottle of Budweiser, consume Debord’s spectacle which is covered in fingerprints from the ‘genocidal cookie jar’ (Jello Biafra - “No More Cocoons”), calm in the knowledge that you are working to end world hunger – yes, reaffirm it Bob: The Biggest Lie, The New Sentimental Order, Sickening Carnivals of Charity. Henry Rollins might have said on “In The Van” that all you need for a great party were guns, tobacco and beer - I guess Stalin gave the Russians ‘bread and circuses’. John and Paul, Sir Bob and Wolfowitz give us justification for ‘modern liberal genocide’ – after I returned from my pointless excursion to Edinburgh, I switched on the TV to watch Sir Paul - all I could hear in my mind were the lyrics “much rather would they rule, building castles and tycoons, a crust out to the third world, sending rockets to the moon, making missiles, tanks and bombs, nuclear power for our homes, raising hell up from the mines, to the last human sacrifice” (Conflict – “Mighty and Superior”) – and - “if the Doors or John Lennon started now, they’d never get signed in a million years” (Dead Kennedys – “Triumph of the Swill”).
So buy into the lie, subscribe to the non-thinking world we so desperately crave. Why not let this pseudo celebrity world help us to do your own research? Rain check the latest shyster glossy with prime time T.V. advertising to bolster already disappointing sales and check out if you are really one of Curtis White’s Living Dead? Answer these 10 easy questions and find out for yourself how far short of wherever you could be – you are not? By subscribing to this magazine we pledge ‘that we will deliver all your ideas and opinions, eradicating those nagging and unnecessary spaces which yearn for the imagination to create possibility’ – you have enough of that already.
One final lyric - “These lands are all now barren lands, Where dealers all deal withered hands, Where weeds grow up through rocks and sand, Where once the corn and fruit could stand, No-one bothers making plans, Or trying much to understand, Coz in this bleak and barren land it is the bland, It is the bland who lead …the bland” (World Service - “Celebration Town”)
One final thought - “Government Music” is so described because it always plays through the gaps and pauses – it plays in our heads long after the broadcasts have stopped, and the ‘musicians’ and ‘content providers’ are sleeping safely in their beds. It is another lie which claims it does not exist, and as such it is yearning to tell us the truth. Like Derrida said it “works so hard to send us to sleep – it cannot fail but to awaken us”.
Post Script – Post Script – Newsflash – Newsflash – Oh, was that another dead migrant’s body washed up on the Lampadurian beach in the Mediterranean? Don’t mention it to the tourists – it’s the land of endless sunshine. Oh, what was that? Another commodified rockstar who didn’t benefit from participation in Live 8? Are Lampadurian beaches and Live 8 connected – you bet they are – in fact they all are – join the dots . . . punk and philosophy might help you on your way - unless you allow “government music” to convince you otherwise.. after all, it’s only natural.
Andy Higgins – tMx 21 – 09/05