This is the story of the books punks read and why they read them. The Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf challenges the stereotype that punk rock is a bastion of violent, drug-addicted, uneducated drop outs. Brian James Schill explores how, for decades, punk and postpunk subculture has absorbed, debated, and reintroduced into popular culture, philosophy, classic literature, poetry, and avant-garde theatre. Connecting punk to not only Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud, but Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Henry Miller, Kafka, and Philip K. Dick, this work documents and interprets the subculture’s literary history. In detailing the punk bookshelf, Schill contends that punk’s literary and intellectual interests can be traced to the sense of shame (whether physical, socioeconomic, cultural, or sexual) its advocates feel in the face of a shameless market economy that not only preoccupied many of punks’ favorite writers but generated the entire punk polemic.
About the Author
Brian James Schill is Undergraduate Research Coordinator for the Honors Program at the University of North Dakota. He teaches media theory, media criticism, and cultural studies, and is Founder and Editor of Agricouture.org.
Read an Excerpt
"Why shouldn't people be frightened by this music?" The question comes by way of The Tomorrow Show host Tom Snyder late on a cold February night in 1981, long after most of Johnny Carson's viewers had drifted off to sleep. It is the latest in what has been a string of patronizing and superficial queries that included "Do you hear your own voice when you're singing back there?" and "If you toned it down a little bit maybe you'd have more fans — do you think about that at all?" He is marking time, Snyder, picking lint from his coat and looking for a way of filling space until the next advertising break. Bored by his own interview with Iggy Pop, and apparently having learned little from his disastrous conversation with John Lydon and Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd six months earlier, the interviewer is trying if not to provoke then at least to amuse the jittery and sometimes jumbled guest opposite him who had only minutes earlier performed "Dog Food" and "T.V. Eye" for an in-studio audience. As his disinterested line of questions suggests, Snyder has come to regard Pop — still bleeding after butting himself in the face with an NBC microphone — as a freak, a numbskull, certainly not someone to be taken seriously or engaged intellectually. The interview had been beset by fits and starts to that point, with, as a result, awkward moments that even had Snyder held his interlocutor in more esteem would likely have emerged naturally from the juxtaposition of the well-heeled patriarch of late-late television and the shoot-from-the-hip former Stooge who explained comfortably only seconds before this latest question that his effort to tax his own flesh with broken glass during a 1973 performance was an attempt to express a certain existential principle: "the truth of that moment was that I ought to be cut."
Snyder, frowning now, is nonplussed; he is tired of the guest's incoherence and lack of professionalism. "I was talking to your chick who works for you the other day ... is this mic working?" Pop had mumbled in between sips of water as a shrill voice in the audience orders Pop, "Take off your clothes!" Trying to rein things in, Snyder presses on, refusing to let his initial question die a natural death: "Just as some people were very terrified of rock and roll when it started, and then they got terrified of the Beatles, there are some people who get scared by any new trend in music —" he continues before being cut off.
"Okay, fair enough," admits Pop finally, ignoring Snyder's suggestion that punk was somehow new in 1981. "One terror is that ifyou played music like the way I do, okay, obviously, already, if I put as much into a song as I possibly can on your show, automatically for five, ten minutes, it is very hard for me to speak articulately or to talk to you —"
"You're pumped up back there," Snyder offers, nodding in feigned understanding.
"You see, because I've quite given myself totally to that," Pop says soberly, gesturing to the stage behind him. Then, grinning like a little boy about to voice a dirty word, Pop returns his gaze to Snyder and after a pause almost whispers, "It's Dionysiac."
Snyder's posture, his entire carriage, shifts at the sound. "You know the difference between Dionysiac and Apollonian art?" Pop asks his host quickly, sensing immediately the freeze the question brings into the studio. Snyder's own smile, as if through a certain sublimation, evaporates: this is not Lydon smoking and smirking but nonetheless deferring to Snyder's lead — Snyder has himselfbecome the object of his own program. Snyder is disoriented by Pop's query, his heretofore smug regard for his guest replaced by an expression of confusion. Silence. He sits up a bit straighter, searching for a reply.
The lag lasts only a moment, but in the profound void that follows Pop's question to a respected news reporter and anchorman, who, knowing instantly that he has been duped (again), can only manage a meek, "I'm not too good on that," everyone — interviewer, interviewee, studio audience, television viewer — recognizes instantly the transference that has occurred in the room.
Without hesitating longer, Pop, simultaneously trying to save his host from too much embarrassment and recognizing that he has cleared the ground completely, launches into a discourse on Friedrich Nietzsche's 1872 foray into dramaturgy, The Birth of Tragedy. The broken-toothed, scrawny punk, astute enough to know just how narrow is the opening in this window, drives the discourse forward, now lecturing the television man: "Dionysiac art in Greek times was where, like, a bunch of people would get together and they'd erect a paper phallus 50 feet long and carry it around and chant to some god they believed in, right?" Snyder is getting visibly nervous, uncertain of where this is all going. He has no reply save a subtle "mmhmmm." Pop advances with confidence, returning finally to the question that began the interview. "You know ... the creation of an event — it's eventful art. Apollonian is when you just make a statue and it's there forever and it's set out very clearly. There's a Dionysiac element to my art that does ... I suppose a lot of people might be frightened to be me. But I'm quite happy to be me."
In a space of ninety seconds, Iggy Pop, the self-debasing, skittish, and bloodied former Stooge — who made a name for himself by crawling about a stage singing, "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and coating himself in peanut butter on stage — has swept away all frivolity, all the trite commercial pandering typical of late-night television and pop schlock that even at the height of early punk dominated the airwaves, and replaced it with dramatic theory, with philosophy. On NBC. Perhaps even more stunned than was Bill Grundy when the Sex Pistols unleashed "the filth and the fury" on Thames TV in 1977, Snyder, confounded as to how to continue when his guest failed to act like the crude monkey he was expected to be, has little recourse but to move on quickly, to search for a way of keeping things light — "All right. In the world of music, who are your favorites?"
Although Pop entertains the question, citing Sun Ra, Cab Calloway, and Howlin' Wolf, his answer is irrelevant. The point has been made: to misjudge punk's intellectual ceiling, to dismiss it as mindless violence and atonal noise, is a precarious, and potentially fatal, move. That a conversation on continental philosophy and the phallus as a signifier — on Nietzsche as the basis for an international pop subculture — is so disarming to a member of the elite and advanced not by an academic, politician, or establishment critic but a punk rocker, is an astounding commentary on the sad state of pop music, broadcast journalism, and American culture broadly in 1981. This Snyder and his advertisers learned the hard way, with cameras rolling.
Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is the fact that Pop, in 1981, was but the latest in a long line of punks to have made direct reference to Nietzsche since the 1970s. "I like philosophers on a literary level rather than — like Nietzsche — he's got flair!" So enthused the Dickies singer Leonard Graves Phillips two years in advance of Pop's interview. "Sure he contradicts himself all the time but ... I always got the impression that Nietzsche was a real Quasimodo virgin guy — in the daytime he'd, 'Uh, hi, how are you, I-I'm really a ni-nice guy,' but at night he'd go into his room and Wham: the master race! the super man!"
"Western values mean nothing to her," crooned Mark Stewart of the Pop Group through a red kerchief a year after Phillips in "She Is Beyond Good and Evil," a disjointed single that unfolds like a Nietzschean wet dream and anticipates the group's later single "Where There's a Will There's a Way," in referencing the philosopher's most polemic work. Not to be outdone, Germs singer Darby Crash confessed to having filled countless notebooks with homespun poetry, prose, and philosophy in high school. "I [still] work on some philosophy stuff. Just Scientology and Nietzsche like Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Prince by Machiavelli."
Or, as Richard Hell had put it to Punk magazine's Legs McNeil years before Germs, the Pop Group, or the Dickies had pulled themselves together, "Did you ever read Nietzsche?" McNeil only laughs. "Legs, listen to me, he said that anything that makes you laugh, anything that's funny indicates an emotion that's died. Every time you laugh that's an emotion, a serious emotion, that doesn't exist with you anymore ... and that — that's why I think you and everything else is so funny." "Yeah, I do too, but that's not funny," responds McNeil, stifling a laugh. "That's 'cause you don't have any emotions," Hell shoots back, sending both young men, barely out of their teens, into a fit of hysterical guffawing.
Nietzsche notwithstanding, punks' interest in philosophy, Snyder would have been shocked to learn, runs the gamut from aesthetics to phenomenology to epistemology, as Eugene Hutz implies when he sings in gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello's drunken "Start Wearing Purple" that "I know it all from Dio-gee-neez to the Foucault." Or consider that almost lost in the very fine print that typified Search & Destroy is that San Francisco group Screamers directs readers, in a 1978 interview, not only to Susan Sontag and Basil Bernstein but to Foucault's Madness and Civilization. Building on Screamers' ostensible poststructuralism, English postpunks Scritti Politti demonstrate their reading of not only Jacques Derrida but French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan over several singles in songs such as "The Sweetest Girl" and "The Word Girl." Ian Curtis's widow Deborah likewise documents in her memoir Touching from a Distance, the former Joy Division singer obsessed over numerous philosophers, particularly Nietzsche and Sartre.
Further east, Slovenian industrial-postpunk group Laibach lent a blurb to the back of Slavoj Zizek's sophomore English title For They Know Not What They Do two years in advance of the philosopher's public defense of the group against charges of fascism. Finally, American postpunk June Panic made an effort to bring each of these disparate threads together in 2003, telling Punk Planet magazine, "I'm reading a guy called Zizek. I guess you'd call him a Marxist-Lacanian philosopher. The main guy I constantly go back to is Wittgenstein. I read a lot of Heidegger too — I actually wrote a song for him that will be on my new album. I'm reading some essays by T. S. Eliot, Emerson, a lot of Thoreau and stuff like that."
As such examples suggest, punks and postpunks have, across time and place, taken philosophy quite seriously. Even Stewart Home, the writer and founder of the band White Colours, who rejects the intellectual qualities of punk with venom in Cranked Up Really High, concedes that he "spends his time pursuing an interest in Hegelian philosophy" and references by name Marx, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, and Deleuze in his novel Cunt. So does it come as no surprise that a handful of writers — academic and not — have explored the question of whether or not there is an identifiable "punk philosophy." In 1999, anarchist imprint AK Press officially published Craig O'Hara's widely circulated pamphlet originally penned in 1992, The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise. Dealing mostly with the historical context and definition of punk, O'Hara's book, many readers noticed, uses "philosophy" loosely as metonymy for "way of life," failing to make a single reference to political, continental, analytic, or postmodern philosophy and exploring instead punk's connections to anarchism, veganism, and the mass media. The same critique can be made of Lars Kristiansen's Screaming for Change: Articulating a Unifying Philosophy of Punk Rock. Despite his assertion that "punk should be understood as a way of seeing the world, as a way of reasoning, or, essentially, as a philosophy on its own terms," Kristiansen brushes aside all questions of ontology, political economy, and ethics to focus primarily on punk rhetoric. Finally, in 2014 Situation Press published The Truth of Revolution, Brother, an interview collection that brought together many of punk's leading voices to discuss their personal philosophies of Being, aesthetics, and politics. It is ironic, then, that although the book's subtitle is "an exploration of punk philosophy," like its predecessors Truth shies away from actually defining or discussing philosophy proper, or any thinkers-writers dead or alive, in any detail. Although the book's editors argue that "punk brought to life some profound philosophical ideas that largely remained parked on the pages of worthy tomes," these ideas and the tomes from which they emerged are almost nowhere mentioned in the book.
Although one can imagine, in each of the above titles, bibliographies ripe with texts by Hegel, Arendt, and Foucault, Kropotkin, Sartre, and Heidegger, Chomsky, Kant, and Judith Butler, no such citations emerge in any of them — save a handful of throwaway references to Nietzsche and a vaguely defined "existentialism" in each. This absence accounts for these books' bitter aftertaste for readers expecting punk thoughts on the love of wisdom: in ignoring speculative philosophy of the more customary variety these books ignore the fact that many, many punks are often demonstrably — sycophantically — interested in the thinkers cited above, in philosophy as a tradition.
Arguing that punks' actual reading of philosophy forms the basis for what might be called the "punk philosophy," this chapter posits that one cannot articulate a sensible punk philosophy in the absence of understanding the philosophers punks and postpunks have internalized and espoused, the philosophy that heralds punk music and aesthetics. For in identifying the works of philosophy punks have cited in their lyrics, in interviews, on album covers, and from stage, in cataloguing the variegated philosophies punks tend to exploit (if not endorse) in the practice of their art, a pattern emerges: continental rather than analytical philosophy tends to be valorized; the philosophers most often cited were at one time, and at times still are, those marginalized — if not dismissed outright — within much of academic philosophy; and with Iggy leading the way, punks often craft an aesthetic out of their reading of philosophy, even when the texts in question have little to do with aesthetics. For example, on Scritti Politti's Lacan-referencing "Wood Beez," Green Gartside, playing the role of analyst, transfers Derrida's différance, the infinite delay in signification implicit to language, to the pop love song, singing, "I'm a would be / W.O.O.D. / I'm a would be would be / B.E.E.Z.," making of language a plaything and musing on his conjectural proposals for future being, each of which morphs into frustratingly indefinite deferrals of signification, unfulfilled desires that like a swarm of buzzing insects drive the speaker mad. Out of this particular reading, the punk philosophy that comes to be embodied by punks and their descendants is less a nonconformist philosophy of deviance, as Kristiansen puts it, than a celebratory and often self-flagellating valorization of punks' chronic alienation, mortification, and silencing vis-à-vis what Lacan called the institutional Names of the Father — capitalism, Church, family, government, ideology — they reject who are the collective source of punks' humiliating marginalization. Beginning with Hegel and ending with punks' reading of psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, this chapter posits that the punk and postpunk philosophy, prefigured not only by Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, but also by Freud, Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, is one that articulates punks' ongoing attempt to stage, make sense of, and ultimately escape the abject selves created by a series of what Lacan called "master signifiers" that punks come to oppose as a matter of course for the shame they beget in the punk subject.
Tarrying with the Negative
Nietzsche's attraction for punks is therefore obvious: he is one of their own. Renouncing his Prussian citizenship in 1869, Nietzsche wormed his way into the academy in Switzerland — at age twenty-four — despite lacking both a terminal degree and a teaching credential. Cultivating a reputation as a rabble-rousing nonconformist and "nihilist" (though he would also warn of nihilism's harms) he produced increasingly bold tracts attacking the establishment wherever he encountered it, the Church, high culture, and his intellectual predecessors. "Like Luther, like Liebniz, Kant was one more clog for German honesty," Nietzsche wrote sardonically in his most antagonistically entitled work The Antichrist — which perhaps caught Johnny Rotten's eye somewhere along the way — before concluding that as a result of his scrupulousness, "Kant became an idiot." The philosopher infamous for drawing attention to the death of God would go on in the same essay to call Hegel's notion of "pure spirit" a "pure lie" and argue that the unfolding of consciousness from his The Phenomenology of Spirit is so much time wasted: "The development of consciousness, the 'spirit,' is for us nothing less than the symptom of a relative imperfection of the organism; it means trying, groping, blundering — an exertion which uses up an unnecessary amount of nervous energy." Nietzsche's aphoristic and narrative style, moreover, today remains remarkably readable compared to the turgid cryptographs of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and other thinkers Nietzsche attacked in print. "I think of Nietzsche as the first great punk philosopher. I see him there in the pantheon with a safety pin stuck through his nose and two fingers thrust up in the general direction of the philosophic pantheon," English novelist Will Self once put it. "And that is a positive aspect of him, as it were, paradoxically. In his most apparent nihilism he seems to me also to be the most apparently positive of thinkers because he's enjoining people to do it themselves, in that way. His philosophy is not a guide that you should think like him; it's a guide that you should think for yourself."
Excerpted from "The Year's Work In The Punk Bookshelf Or, Lusty Scripts"
Copyright © 2017 Brian James Schill.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Nietzsche's Lisp, 24,
2 "I Could've Been Raskolnikov": Punk Reads Dostoevsky, 67,
3 Departure in New Noise: Punk Poetry, 108,
4 "On Play Patterns": Punk's Theater of Cruelty and Alienation Effect, 148,
5 Love Will Tear Us Apart, Or, Henry and June Meet Sid and Nancy, 192,
6 The Dismemberment Plan: Burroughs, Dick, and the Portmanteaux, 233,
7 "A Report to an Academy": Punk Fiction, 276,
EPILOGUE: The Loveliest of Passions, 315,