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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chaos not music: part two

Think of this as a window into punk.

This is from  http://www.militantesthetix.co.uk/punk/Punkcomb.html

Punk cannot be understood by simply narrating its events in chronological order, as Jon Savage did in England’s Dreaming. Its determinations can only be unpicked by examining the latest developments in the contradictions it exploited, which means understanding the current relationship of capital and commodification to musical truth.

That is why Jon Savage’s narrative betrays and tames the very movement it sought to explain: it projects back the success of Punk into its history, and therefore presents yet another cosy and positive tale of rags-to-riches. Since this is also the story of Jon Savage, now a successful member of the Popsicle Academy, we are really reading autobiography in drag.

One way of blowing apart the dead inevitability of history written with hindsight - its placid affirmation of the status quo - is Walter Benjamin’s method of seizing on a significant detail. This was actually a development of Benjamin’s reading of Marx’s Capital. Benjamin’s hallucinogenic focus on a single detail jolts a moment from its place in a preordained sequence of events, and lets in the multivalent possibility inherent in human action. As Hegel said in the smaller Logic, para. 143, ‘Viewed as an identity in general, Actuality is first of all Possibility.’ [G.W.F. Hegel, Logic, 1817/1827, translated William Wallace, 1873, Oxford: OUP, 1975, p. 202].

This is an insight that Savage never dreamed of. The Punk story told in terms of chart placements and fame immediately puts Punk back in the pop logic it was a protest against, whereas reveries about shopping schemes, council tenancies, bondage and Day-Glo can take us back into the first moments of Punk’s immediacy, its shock and exhilaration - the heretical idea of living historically instead of at the behest of the needs of capital accumulation. No past, no future, no capital, no mortgage payments.

Apart from his absurd tease that the Sex Pistols were not a punk band, Stewart Home's analysis of punk - because it has some relation to dialectical non-affirmative concepts - has been the most helpful. In maintaining that its root politics were either anarchist or fascist - by which he means irretrievably petit bourgeois and individualist - he breaks out of the narrow view that pop may only be discussed in its own terms: a stupid and inert reflection of the economic categories of its primary distribution.

If music is not real unless it reaches the charts, if there is no everyday life outside practices which allow capital to realise surplus value, then there is no escape from ideology, everything is a sequence of deracinated images, and when I take a shit, I don't exist.

This is not the consciousness addressed by Punk. Indeed, Punk refurbished chart music and mass celebrity as potential sites for critique, bringing back into social dialogue drives and ambitions which would otherwise have been driven underground into daydreams, classical revolutionary politics or backwater academia. In Home's analysis, Punk is seen as a radical art practice, and it is made to stand or fall by reference to the most advanced ideas of that milieu, which means those of the Situationists.

However, in performing his ideological critique of Punk, Home steers dangerously close to an idealism which underestimates the intelligence of the real, and only pays attention tthose who treated Punk as a soapbox for political broadcast. Situationist rhetoric was dependent on the particular situation of artistic radicals in post-war Paris: an artistic world capital that was losing hegemony to New York, a left establishment which had made a historic compromise with Communist state-capitalism in Russia, and a surrealism deaf to the claims of music as a truth-testing of social repression.

Once transplanted to London, situationist ideas entered into a completely different relation to the establishment. There was no question of organising advanced artists to take seriously a surrealist objection to bourgeois social relations, since modern art in Britain - Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Frank Auerbach - was a parochial parody of the movements which had swept Rome, Moscow, Paris and Berlin, utterly uncomprehending of the continental avantgarde’s anti-art dynamic

Interiority is the last refuge of the petit bourgeois.What Home objects to as the ‘anarcho-fascist’ politics of Punk is actually the ideology of individualists and careerists - music journalists, record-company men and petty academics - who refused to accept that Punk begged questions about the wider class struggle. At the time, Rock Against Racism was not an option anyone could refuse who was attendant to confusions created by McLaren’s use of the swastika.

Of course, it is now common knowledge in Cultural Studies that Rock Against Racism was manipulative, racist and oppressive to minorities, a historical revision which could only be undertaken by people who never found themselves in a punk club ordering drinks at the bar next to a British Movement organiser who is wearing a union-jack-plus-swastika sticker, and harassing the Sikh behind the bar.

Home is these days gleefully separating himself from anarchism and calling himself a council communist, but his situationist-derived fear of Leninism - a misconstruction, since Guy Debord’s polemics were directed against the French Communist Party, not the SWP - meant that he could not endorse Rock Against Racism at the time. Having argued himself out of the swamps of anarchism, Home faces a stark political choice between Leninism and liberalism (in the absence of any contemporary current, his claim to be a "council communist" amounts to political abstention).

Historically, "radicals" like Crass who refused to take sides soon revealed themselves as petit-bourgeois parasites eager to finance their own lives of "individual freedom" in Ongar, Epping Forest - and, in the case of the Poison Girls, the Sierra Nevada - through the proceeds of their musical activities. Unlike subsequent imitations such as Red Wedge and Live Aid, Rock Against Racism was not organised in order to promote stars and sell records. It used the generalised impact of Punk - the formation of countless bands looking for places to play - and struck bargains where a band’s desire for exposure was exchanged for an explicit stand against racism.

Of course, there was much confusion and debate about race and class and integrity in these bargains, but the emergence of Two Tone proved that the idea of punky-reggae parties - usually a couple of punk bands and a sound system - resulted from real social interaction rather than marketable imagery. A comparison of the revolutionary politics of Two Tone and On-U Sound - labels dedicated to racial miscegenation - and, say, Factory or Creation Records, demonstrates how even tacit racism holds back political consciousness in popular music.


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