Coming out late October on Zero Books, Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is an anthology of punk and post-punk texts edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. Participants include Simon Critchley, Judy Nylon, Tony D, Tom Vague, Jonh Ingham, Penny Rimbaud, Barney Hoskyns, Nicholas Rombes, Jon Savage.... our lost dear boy Mark Fisher .... and yours truly.
My contribution is an essay looking back at punk, but not from the present: titled "1976/86" it was written in the spring of 1986 for the final issue of Monitor. The piece simultaneously participated in the spate of 10th Anniversary retrospection that year (mostly hand-wringing in tone: what happened, where did we go wrong?) while also stepping back to examine the retrospective discourse itself. Specifically, I felt that far from punk being something long-long-ago and absent, it continued to loom over the landscape of British music, which if anything was over-determined by punkthink. In some ways that essay is the acorn out which Rip It Up and Start Again would grow after a long interval, although "postpunk" as currently understood was just one of many after-punk pathways I traced in the piece.
"Punk as outrage" was one of those trajectories pinpointed and dissected - the vileness and Vicious-ness lineage, a/k/a "I killed a cat" = Doing It My Way *. Thinking about that reminded me that I've been remiss in not flagging up here another very interesting Zero publication, although it's got so much attention this summer you've almost certainly heard of it already: Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right, Indeed it's rather a controversial book, with some on the hardcore edge of the Left seemingly viscerally offended by its thesis, which asserts that there is a commonality of psychology in the desire-to-shock, whether manifested on the far right or far left of the political-cultural spectrum.
In the horrendously polarized, high-stakes moment that is now, you can kind of see why Nagle's thesis might offend; it does slightly resemble the old wet-liberal canard "you go so far to the left, you end up on the right". But I have actually had a couple of conversations in the past year with online strangers who claimed that they know people on the radical left who have switched to the right - not because they shared the values particularly but because that's where the new cutting edge was, in terms of irreverence and iconoclasm. The buzz of shocking, the rush of causing offence - this was more important than the actual political positions and their real-world implications. This was the punk of today, in effect.
Nagle references The Sex Revolts a couple of times during her thesis. That book is a bit of an orphan in the oeuvre, indeed there have been quite long periods when I've completely forgotten that Joy and I ever wrote it. While I can't quite reconstruct the head that came up with the over-arching thesis on which the thing is scaffolded and which I'm not certain stands up anymore (that was the peak / swan-song of my infatuation with French theory), whenever I've looked back at a specific portion or patch of it - the stuff on grunge, or Siouxsie, or the whole section on psychedelia - it still seems on the money.
Probably the sharpest part is the stuff that relates to Nagle's book - which apart from anything else is a very handy quick-read recap of recent history / guided tour through the online sewer system, from the social injustice warriors of the alt-right to the anti-feminist virulence of the manosphere (or should that be man-of-fears). That is the early Sex Revolts chapter that dissects the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wiley in his 1942 book Generation of Vipers. Wylie identified a form of new American decadence in the growth of consumerism, mass media entertainment like radio, and suburbia, which he linked to matriarchy and domesticity: American virility, the frontier style of rugged martial masculinity on which the nation was founded, was being smothered by over-mothering, comfort and niceness. The Sex Revolts mentions Robert Bly's Iron Man as a modern-day, therapeutically tinged and New Age-y resurgence of the Momism critique, a sort of Jung Thug Manifesto. But, published in 1995, our book was a year too early for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: angry young men reacting against metrosexual consumerism and sensitivity, an insidious decadence weakening them from within, coming up with solutions that recall Nietzche's "in a time of peace, the warlike man attacks himself."
Fight Club was the book that coined the term "snowflake," and the novel has proved to be a prophetic parable. The ugly contorted face of anti-Momism today is the paranoid impatience with political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc - the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Underlying it all is the crisis of a masculinity that doesn't know what it's for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era where women provide for themselves or are the high-earning member of the family. Hence the fixation on imagined threats to gun ownership, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth, on macho posturing foreign policy, on Theweleit-on-the-Freikorps style walls and dams against contaminating floods, and a dozen other psyche-fortifying issues - all of them proxies, props, displacements for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.
* The really acute essay on punk in that issue of Monitor is the piece by Hilary Bichovsky (then writing as Hilary Little) on a recent retrospective exhibition of Jamie Reid's art, including his work for the Sex Pistols, in the course of which she wryly but implacably picks apart the impulse-to-outrage from an unsparing feminist perspective. One of the things she comments on is the "Who Killed Bambi" artwork - the slain deer, an actual living thing sacrificed for an edgy concept, a image designed to shock. As with Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", as with names such as Stiff Kittens and Kill My Pet Puppy, the underlying idea is that softy furry things made you soft inside. Killing things, even symbolically with sick humour, makes you hard.
Sex Revolts actually started with a sick joke. We went out for dinner with a friend - this is early Nineties, East Village NYC - and he'd brought along a friend, someone who'd been in various noise bands (including this one). During the meal, the musician told a joke:
Q: What's the worse thing about raping a child?
A: Having to kill her afterwards.
I guess it was a test of how cool you were - if you laughed, you passed. We flunked the test. Later, walking home, Joy and I started talking about why, at that time, there were such a lot of underground-rock bands with songs about killing women. Three hours of fevered discussion later, we had a book mapped out.
** For further Nagle reading, try this Baffler essay about the breakdown of manners and self-restraint in public discourse.