Annotated Bibliography: Punk Rock, Media Activism and the Situationist International

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Probably the best-known work produced by the Situationist International, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was very influential on a number of the other writers I’m looking at, including Marcus, Klein, and Dery. The Society of the Spectacle is a very complex and sometimes internally contradictory text, so I’m still puzzling through a lot of his ideas, but what I understand so far seems to relate to ideas of Frankfurt School, as well as Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.

Debord writes, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” “The spectacle” is, at least on one level, Debord’s attempt to describe and critique the conditions of a society dominated by mass media and advertising. The alienation that results from capitalist production is compounded by the passivity of media consumption, creating a culture of isolated media “spectators” rather than engaged participants. The “screen” of the spectacle imposes false consciousness through “social hallucination,” resulting in a condition of “generalized autism.” One path of resistance to “spectacular separation” lies in reclaiming urban systems as a “mobile space of play.” (referencing the Situationist practice of derive, which Debord describes in more detail elsewhere.) Ultimately, transcendence of the spectacle is only possible through practices of “negation,” which Debord frames as a resumption of revolutionary class struggle. The “style of negation” is a way of enacting critical theories of art, language and society. Key here is the use of detournement, a practice of borrowing and recontextualizing existing works to undermine their ideological power. (“Plagiarism is necessary.”)

Dery, Mark. “Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1993. Online edition: Shovelware, 2004. < http://www.markdery.com/archives/books/culture_jamming/#000005#more>

Mark Dery, the journalist who popularized the term “culture jamming” in the 90s, echoes many of the ideas expressed in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle in response to the TV-saturated Regan Era in America. Like Debord, Dery argues that the proliferation of passive spectatorship through corporate-controlled media leads to profound alienation. Dery’s essay is an attempt to answer the question, “What shape does an engaged politics assume in an empire of signs?” In response, Dery cites Umberto Eco’s notion of “semiological guerilla warfare,” which he recasts as “culture jamming.” The term “cultural jamming” was first used by the collage band Negativland to describe billboard alteration and other forms of media sabotage. Dery applies it more broadly to many forms of media subversion, locating the practice of “culture jamming” in a continuum that includes Situationist detournement, artistic cut-up techiniques, media piracy and subcultural bricolage. He describes culture jammers as “Groucho Marxists” with a playful approach to political engagement.

While culture jamming doesn’t explicitly relate to the legacy of punk, it might be an interesting point of comparison as another post-Situationist form of aesthetic protest that takes place at the intersection of art, politics, commerce and media subversion.

Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador USA, 2000.

Published shortly after the Seattle WTO conference protests in 1999, Naomi Klein’s No Logo quickly became one of the most influential books about the anti-globalization movement. Klein states that the title is “an attempt to capture an anticorporate attitude I see emerging among many young activists. This book is hinged on a simple hypothesis: that as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations, particularly those with very high name-brand recognitions.”

Klein looks as the proliferation of branding and advertising in contemporary culture, and the ways in which it triggers dissent and resistance, particularly through symbolic attacks on the corporate image. Many of the ideas in Klein’s book, particularly her focus on practices of “culture jamming” or “subvertising” (as defined by Dery) draw on Situationist theory.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Alongside Dick Hebdige’s Subculture, Lipstick Traces is often referred to as a key critical text on punk. Marcus takes an apparently ephemeral pop culture item, the Sex Pistols’ hit single “Anarchy in the U.K.,” and positions it as a continuation of the rhetorical legacy of 20th century avant-garde art movements. According to Marcus, the song matters precisely because it emerges from the mundane sphere of pop music:

“The Sex Pistols made a breach in the pop milieu, in the screen of received cultural assumptions governing what one expected to hear and how one expected to respond. Because received cultural assumptions are hegemonic propositions about the way the world is supposed to work—ideological constructs perceived and experienced as natural facts—the breach in the pop milieu opened into the realm of everyday life.” (3)

The song served as a radical “negation” of the values of everyday life: “Damning God and the state, work and leisure, home and family, sex and play, the audience and itself, the music briefly made it possible to experience all those things as if they were not natural facts but ideological constructs: things that had been bade and therefore could be altered, or done away with altogether.” (6) Marcus links “Anarchy in the U.K.” with the social critique voiced by the Lettrist International and Situationist International in the 60s, whose own intellectual roots lay in turn with “surrealists of the 1920s, the Dadaists who made their names during and just after the First World War, the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, various medieval heretics, and the Knights of the Round Table.” The sensational media attention the group received, as well as the fact that their career was ostensibly orchestrated as a “scam” by Malcom McLaren, both complicate and underscore their value in the “secret history” of the 20th century.

Nehring, Neil. “The Situationist International in American Hardcore Punk, 1982-2002.” Popular Music and Society. Vol. 29, No. 5, December 2006: pp. 519-530.

While critical discourse on the influence of the theories of the Situationist International on punk has largely focused on the Sex Pistols circa 1977, Nehring attempts to extend the discussion into the 1980s and beyond. The SI’s posthumous, unlikely popularization through Malcom McLaren’s involvement in the British punk scene continues to influence latterday punks. According to Nehring, “Some of the strongest living practices with at least some basis in the work of the SI can be found in American hardcore punk since the 1980s.” The influence of the SI and other progressive political movements were immediately felt by British bands of the 1980s, including Crass and Gang of Four (whose album Entertainment! Nehring calls “the only truly Situationist album in history”). Meanwhile, “Situationism” became a recurring point of reference for American hardcore bands of the 80s and 90s, including the Feederz, Unwound, the Panthers, and Dillinger Four. “Decidedly colloquial and vague by academic standards, the punk derivations from the SI are typically a matter of rejecting consumerism and the mass media,” Nehring writes. However, recognizing the continued influence of the SI helps to cement punk’s role as a vital if underappreciated form of activist music.

Savage, John. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Savage historically situates the Sex Pistols phenomenon within the sociopolitical conditions of England in the 70s and the development of the punk scene in England and America. Of particular interest here are early chapters on Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s roles in developing the punk aesthetic, especially McLaren’s interest (and marginal involvement) in Situationist groups.

Thompson, Stacy. Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004.

In contrast to the primarily aesthetic analyses of punk done by critics like Marcus and Hebdige, Thompson proposes to examine punk not as a kind of semiotics of identity, but rather as a set of material practices: “I advance a materialist investigation of punk economics and punk aesthetics, in order to formulate some of the ways in which punk both resists and is resisted by capitalism, a term that is largely absent from the work of most critics of punk.” (2) Looking at seven major punk “scenes” since the mid-70s and the texts that comprise the “punk project” (music, style, zines, cinema, and events), Thompson explores the fundamental contradiction between the aesthetics and economics of punk. Citing Marx in the German Ideology, Thompson raises two “big questions” about punk as a site of resistance to capitalism: “Can the commodity form be taken up and used against capitalism? Can all aesthetics be commodified?” (3)

Thompson draws on a variety of Marxist cultural theorists (Williams, Jameson and Benjamin, among others), and I think his arguments here will be key to understanding the development of punk since the 70s. It will also be an interesting parallel to Marcus’ and Hebdige’s theories of punk. At one point Thompson specifically criticizes what he calls Marcus’ “transhistorical” reading of punk.

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