Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

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Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?

Empire, Kitty. “Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?” The Observer (The New Review section), 19 November 2017, p. 36.

. . . Were the art school games of canny old hippies behind punk? Sometimes, but perhaps more in theory than practice. An essay in Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night by fanzine writer Tom Vague retraces McLaren’s appetite for destruction back through the situationists, the lettrists, psychogeography and a tiny late 60s Notting Hill faction called King Mob (a reference to the Gordon Riots of 1780).

Authors Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix have skin in the game; Cabut is an ex-punk (“In the summer of 1977 I am 17 – perfect”) who became a playwright, while Gallix is at the Sorbonne and edits a free-ranging literary webzine called 3:AM (“whatever it is, we’re against it”). The book’s title (Modernity Killed Every Night) quotes Jacques Vaché, friend to the surrealist André Breton. But Punk Is Dead isn’t end-to-end cultural theory; there’s a lot on clothes. Three strands unfurl — papers, essays and first-person accounts. Cabut and Gallix have included historical documents — such as Penny Rimbaud’s 1977 essay, Banned from the Roxy, newly annotated by the Crass drummer — while Gallix argues that punk started ending when it acquired a name. Jon Savage is here, and Ted Polhemus and Vermorel (again).

As that list attests, punk can be a tiresomely Boy’s Own narrative, to which former Slit Viv Albertine’s 2014 memoir was a potent corrective. With the exception of Judy Nylon’s introduction and the reminiscences of go-go dancer turned drummer Dorothy Max Prior, however, this collection is let down by its dearth of female voices. Perhaps the notion to take away from both books — indeed from punk itself — is the one of endless possibility. As an interview with the punk turned philosopher Simon Critchley attests, punk unleashed ideas. It palpably changed suburban teenage futures, rather than ending them.

Lessons in Unlearning

Simon Critchley, ABC of Impossibility, 2015

The poet issues reminders for what we already know and interprets what we already understand but have not made explicit. Poetry takes things as they are and as they are understood by us, but in a way that we have covered over through force of habit, a contempt born of familiarity, or what Fernando Pessao’s heteronym Alberto Caeiro calls ‘a sickness of the eyes’. Poetry returns us to our familiarity with things through the de-familiarization of poetic saying, it provides what Careio calls ‘lessons in unlearning’ where we finally see what is under our noses. What the poet discovers is what we knew already, but had covered up: the world in its plain simplicitly and palpable presence.

That Few Seconds of Silence on the Tape

Tom McCarthy, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying by Simon Critchley, 2010

Memory is always a narrative, we have this mechanism in our brains that turns ones and zeros into a narrative thread, which is memory. Interestingly, very often in cases of trauma, that part goes off to strike. So you got the data, but it has not been dealt with. And the catastrophic event keeps coming back. That gap, or absence, that few seconds of silence on the tape, become real; since everything else that is on the tape is fake, that gap must be real. This is a construct, a completely artificial construction. But it’s interesting that the event then stands in the place of authenticity.

And to Sum Myself Up in It

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Football (2015; 2016): 66

I’ve always been in search of a closed place, cut off from the world, warm, reassuring, a place of dreams that might have assumed the image of a bathroom in my first book, but which could now no longer be anything else than literature itself. It was into literature that I intended to withdraw that summer, and to sum myself up in it, to merge with it.

Decreative Writing

Simon Critchley, “Episodic Blips,” On Bowie (2016): 15-16.

The unity of one’s life consists in the coherence of the story one can tell about ourself. People do this all the time. It’s the lie that stands behind the memoir. Such is the raison d’être of a big chunk of what remains of the publishing industry, which is fed by the ghastly gutter world of creative writing courses. Against this, and with Simone Weil, I believe in decreative writing that moves through spirals of ever-ascending negations before reaching . . . nothing.

I also think that identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips rather than some grand narrative unity. As David Hume established long ago, our inner life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory. This is perhaps the reason why Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique, where text is seemingly randomly spliced with scissors — and which Bowie famously borrowed from William Burroughs — gets so much closer to reality than any version of naturalism.