Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Philosophy of Punk: Review

With every new friendship we college kids are thrown headfirst into subculture after subculture. And it's fascinating. Before this summer I knew little about punk, except for what my resentment of Hot Topic told me. No worries, I still hate liberty spikes and Rancid and will forever refuse to dye my hair. But when a book is offered, I pick up and read (excuse my St. Augustine), and I read Craig O'Hara's "The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise" with great interest, amusement, and more than just a grain of salt. As a friend told me yesterday, "Punk itself is a blazing contradiction." Contradiction indeed.

For one, Craig O'Hara was himself a member of a punk band. Thus, every statement assumes punk to be the one-and-only subculture, the only place were real people gather, the only place where a voice is heard. There was simply no criticism. What the world needs is an in-depth Hunter S. Thompson-style research of urban subcultures, and once I hit my twenties in two-ish months I'm hell-bent on doing just that. O'Hara, though amassing an extremely large collection of "punk" photos, left me slightly angry, with even more questions.

For one, often O'Hara was outright wrong. Take page 34: "Also influencing the later Punk movement was the type of dress the Futurists chose. Futurists meant to take their anti-art message to the streets by wearing outrageous clothes, earrings, and makeup." DISAGREE. I may be nitpicking, but I'm an art minor, so forgive me, but the futurists were 1. not anti-art, just questioning its nature (that was Dada), and 2. were enormous proponents of industrialism and capitalism, two things completely counterintuitive to punk philosophy.

More questions about "Philosophy of Punk":

1. Punk emphasizes "Direct Change" and "Direct Action," like that famous ALF group that rescues animals from labs, something O'Hara actually mentioned. In actuality though, most punk "direct action" is barbarism and destruction that changes nothing. One could graffiti a fur factory, but will it stop the killing of animals? The only way to enforce change is to talk to the enemy on his/her own level, bureaucratic-style. If punk is about societal progression and revolution, why is it so nihilistic?

2. Take this quote, from page 38: "

When people who want only to be unique or different from the rest of society adopt the Punk look, they succeed in appearing different from the norm. This is a fairly meaningless step. For someone to attempt individuality and become themselves "requires an honest, often painful look inside yourself, asking tough questions like: Who am I? What do I want from life? What should I want? What should I do? Ultimately this process will no doubt make you refuse to conform to many of society's rules and expectations..." (Positive Force Handout)

No, no, and no. One can't honestly believe that the majority of "true" punks all simultaneously came to the realization that punk music is awesome, that anarchy is the way to go, and destruction the way to get there-- that green mohawks are the epitome of individuality, that we should fuck Mozart and the Beatles and listen to music only good for its political message. Now don't get me wrong-- some punk rock is good music, too. But regardless of its old political views, punk IS a "scene," it IS fashion-conscious, and it DOES include a certain mob mentality, regardless of its so-called claims at individuality.

3. There is really no clear argument in the book against nonviolent protest, except that it isn't hardcore enough. But history has shown that nonviolent protest leads to societal progress far more often than Fanon-esque violence. However much I dislike Isaiah Berlin, I'll give him at least this much credit.

Take this hilarious quote from pages 78-79 on an anti-war protest, something that truly epitomizes this book's style:

The process of coalition building may sometimes result in a broad based protest addressing a number of issues which can be shown as interrelated. In this case, it seemed merely to water down the message of the protest. In order to not offend any of the groups present (except the communist group who was offensive in their ridiculous vocal support for Iraq), the message of the protest became "Bring Our Troops Home Now!" While not meaning to devalue human life, many Punks went on to adopt the more poignant slogan "Fuck the troops."

Poignant? How about juvenile? Sure, I may probably have done the same thing at the time (obscenities are always fun), but fun is not the issue here. The point of the protest is not to devalue troops; one of my good friends is a Marine, and even personal attachments aside, "Fuck the troops" seems simply stupid at an anti-war protest.

4. Why anarchy? Why not communism? How about democratic socialism? Why this obsession over Noam Chomsky, amazing though he might be? Why not Leon Trotsky? Or Che Guevara? Or even Bakunin, who seemed the logical solution?

5. Punk stands for extreme individualism. But so does capitalism. In Adam Curtis's eye-opening (and very cool) BBC video series "Century of the Self," he explains how psychological study, self-interest, and self-obsession became the cornerstones of our insanely consumerist society. Clearly punk is anti-consumerist, but if it ignores community ideas, and refuses to form what Hannah Arendt called the long-lost "public" realm, then everything it stands for is lost to self-obsession. If punk is so anti-nationalistic and anti-American, isn't extreme individualism the lifeblood of our economy? What punk wants is what Isaiah Berlin wanted America to be: full of Negative Liberty, liberty to do what one wants when one wants, without the restriction of government. But is this freedom?

6. And, the obvious one: how can individuals conform to the same fashion trends? Nonconformists, in stating themselves to be nonconformists, become conformists, too. Why fishnets? Why tattoos? Why piercings? Colored hair? Liberty spikes and mohawks? Doc Martens or Converse? Cargo or camo?

Until these are answered, I remain unconvinced. What I need is to veer into the punk subculture without getting my face punched for dressing like the indie New Yorker I've become. There's a concert July 31st I'm itching to go to. I'll sneak in a notepad for quotes and everything.

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