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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Punking Everything in SF/F (Part Two): The Past (Punk)

Wouldn't it be amazing if the strange words and concepts we have so gloriously accepted into pop culture were actually understood as the culturally/socially complex entities that they actually are by the same people that pass around the suffix "punk" like a beer keg at a frat party? Indeed, it would, but the curious thing about modern (or perhaps postmodern) culture is that much of the youth, the very ones who so readily claim to exist within the subcultural group called "punk," who rage against the machine of authority without realizing that their vocal and visual forms of resistance (and even auditory through the likes of Green Day and their ilk) are nothing more than a continuation of consumer culture at its worst/best, have no idea, and no intention of learning, what the word "punk" actually means, or what its placement in human history entails for their strangely lucrative subculture. If that seems like a mouthful, it is, because the very nature of consumer culture is itself a conundrum of modern and postmodern ideals, clashing and wandering through a wasteland of personally useless nonsense, filled with people who are either dolefully aware of the pointless nature of their consumption of things or unwittingly a part of it. This is not to say that consumer culture, or, perhaps we should use its proper name, capitalism (late or otherwise), is necessarily bad. Rather, this paragraph begins to illustrate the reality of our existence in America and other Western capitalist democracies (or fascist states, where such things exist) and how pervasive capitalism is in our lives, so much so that many of us fail to notice its pull and tug on our pocket books. Teenagers today, for all their eccentricities and attempts at genuine resistance, have simply adopted a lifestyle or perception of the world that has been just as commodified as any other movement, ideal, and substance we have thus far conceived.

Where am I getting at with this? The very nature of "punk," as I conceive it, is that it cannot ever truly reject the dominant culture, capitalism, not if it, as a movement, expects to survive. Here you might ask: what is "punk?" You would be right to ask that.

Punk originated, somewhat, in music in the 1970s or so, as many have claimed. True punk, the real, commodity-rejecting monstrosity that emerged quite literally as a counter-culture rather than a subculture, was largely a response to globalization, urbanity, and post-industrialization, an inherently commodity-rich point in our history that readily acknowledged the corporation as almost human. Curious as that may sound, it seems to make sense, because as capitalism began to spread across the globe, largely not by its own steam, but through the hands of those with the guns, so to speak, it gave new powers to the corporate entity to represent itself as a thing that could "speak for itself." More curiosity abounds here as to why it took hardly any time at all for something inhuman in nature, almost robotic, to assume the vocalized subaltern without having had to shed blood in the process; well, at least not the corporate blood, but certainly the blood of pre-nationalist societies consumed into globalizing nationhood.

Punk, to try to simplify here for brevity, invented for us the teenager as a market niche. Now, once relegated to the status of children, the budding adult had a place of his or her own, a place of music, bad or good, you pick, and protest against the "man." How silly, then, that punk itself vied to create its own subculture as a consumer aggregate, with no real interest in affecting change at all. In its non-conformist nature, punk literally created a subculture that would eventually have its own marketplace, its own capitalist structures a la Hot Topic and other such gothic-ally obsessed teen hideouts. And teenagers bought into it, hook, line, and sinker, not necessarily through some malicious attempt on the part of punk itself, but because punk provided a place for them to go, where their voices could be heard by someone, even if that someone could do nothing to alleviate the perceived issues of society itself.

Punk was at the cusp of subcultural America/Britain/Australia. In some ways, it was one of the first to take off, to become like a living thing embodied in the mind. It rejected the establishment (monarchy, democracy as fascism, etc.) and sought to ironically being non-conformist by conforming to non-conformism itself (and that might take a moment to contemplate, because punk's survival relied quite literally on non-conformism to be a form of conformist thought, without reservation). You might view all this as a push against the nation state, a sort of anti-intellectual, anti-authoritarian monster with a chip on its shoulder. It is, because punk's response to the world of the 70s and 80s relied almost exclusively on a resistance to the hierarchical structures of the nation, a rejection of what the nation state was doing or had done, and where it would go in the future.

Punk style is forgettable, but its history, its move from a seemingly obscure subculture to universally recognized and commidified almost-dominant-culture, is not. It sat at the dawn of the invention of the goth, the black honky-tonk, the Christian rock movement, the punk music we are familiar with today, and various other movements that otherwise might not have existed if punk itself had not seized capitalism by its throat and wrangled the life out of it until the two could finally agree that they could work together. Too bad that punk got the raw end of the deal, because, after all, for something so dead set against capitalism and the nation state, punk has easily assimilated, if not without the occasional angered retort, into the dominant structures of nationhood and commidification.

That is what punk is. It is not Green Day, for the punk music scene is nothing more than a dilution of what used to be legitimate attempts as subversion complicated by contradiction.

Perhaps that question rises again: where am I going with this? To understand cyberpunk, biopunk, greenpunk, steampunk, salvagepunk, and all the other punks that fans and literature enthusiasts have come up with, one must know where the suffix "punk" comes from. One must know the the mouth of the beat before knowing the beast itself.

Any questions or disagreements?


Read Part One (Punking), Part Three (Cyberpunk A), Part Four (Cyberpunk B), and Part Five (Cyberpunk C).

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  1. Anonymous3:36 AM

    I enjoyed this post very much. You're bang on with most of your points. I'd like to ask, however, what does "assume the vocalized subaltern" mean? I can't get a coherent meaning out of this phrase, which seems to be important to your argument.

    Also, I don't think punk invented the teenager. Elvis and the Beatles did that in the 1950s, didn't they? Or at least they created a "style" and a vocabulary for the excess of money and time frothing out of the unprecedented capitalist boom of the 1950s... which itself, of course, can best be understood as the dynamic repurposing of the vast, vastly government-subsidized US war economy... and so to sum up, WWII created the teenager, much as WWI created the modern woman! The former being a fact that the original punk movement seems to have intuitively understood, though that insight soon evaporated amidst fumes, posturing, and record sales.

    I only just found your blog but I'm liking it. Keep it up!

  2. Anon: By "vocalized subaltern" I'm referring to an article by Gayatri Spivak called "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Basically, I'm saying that the corporation, in becoming something with a legitimate voice, literally became a subaltern "figure" that could speak, without having to form any resistance of its own. No blood was shed. It just happened. (You could argue, obviously, that some blood was shed, what with capitalism largely being responsible, to some extent, for much of the world's problems, and again, I mean no disrespect to capitalism at all, just that it, like any other system, can be manipulated and abused).

    I would agree with you except that what I was trying to get at was that the teenager literally became a market niche, a group that had economic power. Before, that wasn't so much the case. They might have been recognized, but companies had no obligation in regards to their survival to target teenagers. Now, there are entire business (Hot Topic, and others whose names I've forgotten or deleted from memory) gears specifically to teenagers and adults who haven't realized they stopped being teenagers five years ago. There may have been products for teenagers, and even entertainment venues that appealed to them, but the punk movement literally opened the door to making the teenager a market entity, a new piece of the capitalist puzzle that was equally as valuable to the market as a whole as all the other niches.

    But yes, you're right that the teenager was very much in existence before, just not as a market entity, or something that needed to be paid attention to. Today, if teenagers stopped buying certain products, then actual, recognizable damage would be done to the economy.

    Glad you're liking the blog! I have something on cyberpunk coming up, but, understandably, that's a much more difficult genre to conceptualize than punk (at least, to me, anyway, primarily because punk can be reduced to its base components a lot easier than cyberpunk can).

  3. Anonymous1:08 AM

    Thanks for the Spivak explanation! That bit of critical jargon had gone right over my head. I thought a subaltern was a junior army officer :P

    Yeah okay, I can go along with the idea of the teenage market niche coming into existence in the 70s. Would you agree that the commercialization of the hippy / flower child revolution also contributed, parallel to the co-opting of punk?

  4. I'm sure the subaltern has other definitions, but the one I tend to use is the one conceptualized by the Subaltern Studies group, which includes Spivak and many others.

    I have no doubt that the hippy "revolution" had some play in the invention of "punk." I don't know enough about that movement to say for certain.