Consumer Society and Authenticity
The (Il)logic of Punk Practices
Published in Undercurrent #3, October 1995
In this article, I consider the questions: Can there be a logic and a practice of anti-consumption in a consumer society? does this logic interface with attempts to remain or become 'authentic'?
The logic of anti-consumption I plan to outline is not predicated upon "strategic" considerations, but arises as a result of "tactical" moves (De Certeau 1984). The tactics of anti-consumption, like the tactics of all countercultures, are fashioned from the contradictions between the material and cultural realities of social (in this case consuming) subjects. I have selected "Punk," an ambiguous term which will assume a more definite form as I continue, as the most tactical position thus far assumed in response to the material exigencies and interpellative strategies of late capitalism. I analyze Punk social practices in order to forward the modest claim that these practices were indeed self-reflexive tactics which sought to negate, reject, or simply survive the pervasive hail (hell) of late capitalism.
Punk social practices were constituted as responses to the material reality of white working class existence in Britain and a largely white, although less homogeneous, lower middle class in the United States during the middle seventies. This material reality, which I sketch briefly below, was absurdly incongruent with the dominant cultural climate, the spectacular, consumerist, "me generation" ethos of the same period. Although Punk first gained notoriety in Britain, constructed as a cult-like countercultural specter by the media, the trans-Atlantic currents which fed off one another cannot be traced to one point of origin. Was the Velvet Underground the first Punk band? Or was it the Sex Pistols? Was punk ever a coherent counterculture? Is it important to understand it as such? These questions have been addressed by Greil Marcus, John Savage, and others. My intention is less to account for the rise and fall of Punk than to contextualize Punk practices in the United States in order to understand them as tactics of anti-consumption.
Punk in Context: Material and Cultural Conditions
The recession of the seventies, attributed to inflation, effectively began with the OPEC embargo and its resultant energy crunch. As prices for energy skyrocketed, production costs increased, resulting in higher commodity prices. This dramatic rise in prices was coupled with a leveling of wages and a rise in unemployment, two modes of the devaluation of capital required to re-equilibrate an economic system stalled by the overproduction of commodities and increasing capital circulation. The United States, according to mainstream economists, was suffering from "stagflation" or "slumpflation." The monetary crisis continued throughout the seventies, culminating in the 'deep trough' of 1980-82. As always, the working class was impacted most dramatically, adding disproportionately to the rolls of the unemployed as jobs in the manufacturing sector were exported. The lower middle class (those employed in private sector service occupations below middle management) experienced what was arguably the first wave of pessimism since the depression of 1929-41.
The United States entered a period of waning self-confidence (compounded by Watergate) and a nearly contracted economy. As the standards of living for the middle classes declined due to runaway inflation and escalating unemployment, underemployment and crime, the quality of living fell for almost everyone, and religious and secular neoconservatism emerged with power and potency (Cornell West, cited in During 1993:209).
The Reagan economic miracle effectively banished inflation and created thousands of new jobs through a brilliant ruse which conflated monetarism and supply-side economics. This monetary policy shifted the burden of taxation to the average worker/consumer. It also effectively launched inflation into orbit through the lowering of interest rates and the de-regulation of banking. The resulting increased national debt liability revolves around the earth like so much asteroid debris. Bad loans will be covered by taxpayers of the twenty-first century. This policy, the economy in exile, may have solved the "consumer confidence" problem. Reagan himself was something of a confidence man. However, it did not provide consumers, except for the wealthy, with increasing real wages and hence, "consumer potency."
In fact, these policies, as is now well known, expedited an ongoing occupational restructuring, the transition from labour to capital intensive industry. This McDonaldization, a farcical move forward from blue to white and pink collar labor, impacted the working class most negatively and also led to increased competition for lower middle class service jobs. These jobs, increasingly subjected to de-skilling and flex/temp invasion-succession, are to this day contested ground. The luckiest members of the working class move "up," and the middling classes struggle to fend off newcomers.
The state of apparently endless unrest that has come with these Hobbesian policies, and the concomitant ambivalence about the future have given rise to a perceptible fatalism, carried to its apotheosis in eighties Punk but also registered in the 90's media (better late than never) as the futility of a generation. "Generation X" is a term actually coined in 1976 by Punk Richard Hell. The shifts in the occupational structure blurred the boundaries between working and middle classes, either increasing the size of the working class (proletarianization) if one judges by real wages and social position in relation to the means of production, or increasing the middle class (bourgeoisification) if one judges by the occupational restructuring that led to new worker designations and occupational categories (new collar colors).
It was precisely the combination of these social forces, not working class angst or middle class boredom alone, which, coupled with the absurd incantations of a consumer culture in ascendancy, led to an ethos of futility, as well as the hybridization of styles that was to become Punk.
The cultural conditions which constructed and promoted a consumer ethos during the seventies and eighties included at least four broad trends: 1) the saturation of the United States market with kitsch and other non-utilitarian commodities which accelerated after the post-war boom 2) the lacunae created by the democratization of consumption and increased encapsulation of teens and children by marketers and advertisers as the baby boomers moved through the consuming cycle 3) the salience of publicity and promotion, including ideologies of self- promotion, and finally 4) the predominance of the ostensibly autonomous image, culminating in what Debord called "the society of the spectacle." None of these trends originated during this period, but most of them peaked and began to reveal themselves to self-reflexive critique.
The saturation of kitsch in post-war markets is important to this analysis, since the Punk aesthetic was a hyper-ironickitsch-bricolage which served as a testament to the banality of consumer society. Warhol's running commentary on kitsch and commodities (including the self as commodity) marks not only the point where high/mass art boundaries began to implode, but also the point at which a vast cultural repertoire of kitsch had to be reckoned with aesthetically. Hebdige describes Pop as: "a discourse on what Lawrence Alloway called in 1959, 'the drama of possessions': pop as a new suit of clothes: a sports jacket in riding pink with narrow lapels" (1988:120). Residues of Warhol's response, the ironic (?) display of mass-reproduced quotidian banality and media spectacle, turned up in the early Punk of the late seventies and was epitomized by the Sex Pistols, whose manager, Malcom McLaren, was himself an art school product and proto-Pop artist.
The democratization of consumption is another post-war trend in ascendancy during the seventies and eighties. As more leisure time became available, it became necessary in an ever expanding capitalist economy to inundate leisure with commodities, to align the totality of leisure activity with consumption. Mike Featherstone points to the obvious linkage between leisure time/activity and the logic of capital:
If it is possible to claim the operation of a "capital logic" deriving from production, it may also be possible to claim a "consumption logic" which points to the socially structured ways in which goods are used to demarcate social relationships. To speak of the consumption of goods immediately hides the wide range of goods which are consumed or purchased when more and more aspects of free time (which includes everyday maintenance activities as well as leisure) are mediated by the purchase of commodities (1990:9).
The democratization of consumption closely parallels the transition to a "service economy," a euphemism for a series of responses to overaccumulation in the manufacturing sector in the United States' post-war economy.
The seventies and eighties also saw the increased salience of publicity as an advertising strategy as well as the beginnings of an independent cultural logic, a late capitalist langue: "Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal . . . it proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more" (Berger, 1972:131). Publicity, for Berger, offers the promise of self-realization through consumption. This self-realization is endlessly deferred however, since the promised benefit of the act of consumption (glamour, happiness, sexual potency) is always already detached from its material object, the commodity. The (ir)real object of publicity is an unattainable bliss, perfection or completion: "Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it" (Ibid, 1972:153). This language of publicity dovetails nicely with Western progress mythologies, especially the "ever upward and onward" ethos of the United States. The increased permeation of publicity and the ideologies of self-promotion combined with the demographic dominance of the baby boomers to shape the character of a generation, the "me" generation of the seventies and eighties.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and provocative analysis of the three aforementioned trends was anticipated in Debord's "society of the spectacle." Debord's spectacle is a reified image world, a hyper-mediation of social relations in which images gain autonomy from their human creators, defining themselves as they re-define social relations. The spectacle is at once a masking of actual social relations and a construction of "new" social relations:
"the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification . . . The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images" (Debord 1967, #3, #4).
The image as ideological veil qua social cement reaches its apotheosis in contemporary commercial psuedo-events such as the "Bud-Bowl," a simulacral competition of brand-name images. However, numerous examples of this type of animism can be found in the trials and tribulations of the brand-name personalities of the seventies and eighties: Mr. Clean, Aunt Jemima, et cetera.
These four cultural currents can be said to comprise what Michel de Certeau calls a strategy, a loosely interwoven combination of discursive and material information which must be actualized in order for it to be perpetuated. That is, it remains a pre-structured possibility until social actors take it up, acknowledge, affirm, resist, or refute it. It has been my operative assumption thus far that a contradiction existed between the actual material conditions (economy and occupation/class structure) and the possibilities of lower middle class and working class youths for actualization of the discursive stratgey outlined above. This lacunae, this absurd joke, was the space in which Punk subcultures originated, matured, and began to reflexively resist, as well as, to the best of their ability, refute the consumptive logic of late capitalism.
It is impossible to map a genre within a genre with any claim to authority or precision. I cannot hope to claim any certitude in pin-pointing the spatio-temporal boundaries of Punk. Just as my contextualization "misses" important social-psychological influences in the rise of Punk (teenage rebellion, accusations of hypocrisy, "permissive" childrearing), so my characterization of the Punk movement will necessarily exclude virulent strains of rock, thrash, fusion, and their sub-cultural milieus. I do have the good fortune to be mapping a genre which was, from its inception, a fragmented project of self-identification. In other words, when a group of young people declare, albeit with momentous assistance from the media, "We are Punk," it is only reasonable to take them at their word.
However, that is not to say that Punk was in any way a "grass roots" movement. Punk music and Punk subcultures were fully media-tized from their inception. After "missing" the early bohemian movements almost entirely and finally picking up on the beats and hippies as they were on their way to becoming sterile breakfast table conversation, the media was ready for Punk. Punks took many of their cues from the media. The subculture quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy:
The newspapers were filled with photographs of Punks wearing their torn clothes, safety pins through their ears, "Sod the Jubilee" badges, and other memorabilia. Reporters wanted stories and pictures of vile looking Punks and the kids gave them what they wanted. They had no objection to posing. They'd seen the papers; they knew what was required (Blair, 1980:26).
The reflexivity and media savvy of British punks, who knew they were commodified and affirmed this commodification to the fullest, led to the ready-made spectacle which arrived in the United States with the Sex Pistols' tour at the close of the seventies. It is this first strain of Punk, Nihilist Punk, that set the stage for Straight Edge, an ascetic reaction in the middle eighties.
Nihilist Punk was, like most subcultures, a search for "authenticity." Although the naive usage of the term raises a series of important issues (mediation, contamination, purity, and nostalgia, to name a few), my usage is intended to serve as a descriptor for two very different responses, by Nihilist and Straight Edge Punks, to consumer culture. The quest for authenticity in musical subcultures has been dealt with by Simon Frith and Lawrence Grossberg.** In an essay on Springsteen, Frith makes it quite clear that authenticity has nothing to do with ultimate truth or falsity, nor with being "real" in any absolute sense. One can only be real in relation to artifice; one can only appeal to a community of believers as an authentic member/believer: "To be authentic involves a number of moves. Firstly, authenticity must be defended against artifice; the terms only make sense in opposition to each other . . . To be authentic and to sound authentic is in the rock context the same thing. Music can not be true or false, it can only refer to conventions of truth and falsity (Frith, 1988:99-100). One makes an authentic appeal to one's own in response to the inauthenticity of Others.
Grossberg's discussion of authenticity revolves around the contradiction between an increasingly cynical youth culture and a leftover Cold War "happy consciousness." Rock music was the authentic space carved out of this abyss; it functioned as a cultural product which articulated its generation's (baby boomer) anxiety and ambivalence: "The ideology of authenticity was a strategy by which youth culture could re-articulate the lived contradiction between optimism and cynicism" (Grossberg, 1992:208).
The baby boomer's utopianism has been replaced by a more sophisticated, if less optimistic, "postmodern sensibility" (Grossberg 1992, p. 209). The postmodern sensibility is not an inauthentic mode of existence but a reflexive hyper-authenticity. It is a parody of the parody that is called the social. Grossberg claims: "The sensibility of postmodernity defines a logic of "ironic nihilism" or "authentic inauthenticity" (1992:224) which should not to be confused with inauthentic authenticity. Grossberg may not be conceding quite enough to the culture industry.
Can we believe, for example, that every teenage rock fan is "aware," even in the most unarticulated manner, of co-optation, commodification, and star manufacture and also manages to beat the culture industry at its own game through tactics of ironic appropriation? If so, then appropriation/recodification outmaneuvers the culture industry's ever vigilant style harvesting every time. Part of the problem with a theory of "ironic nihilism" is that its populist inclusiveness privileges the creative subject and de-emphasizes the created subject.
I think a close reading of Nihilist Punk, the predecessor of the "postmodern sensibility" and, I will argue, one of the last reflexive attempts at authenticity, may position the reader to understand both the postmodern sensibility and the progressive ironicization of nihilism as a cultural, aesthetic, and political tactic.
Nihilist Punk: Consumption as immanent critique
As a musical genre, Nihilist Punk was a commodified anti-commodity. Punk music in the United States announced itself as part spectacle, part Pop art, and part frantic noise. Many musicians could barely play their instruments. This lack of precision and polish became an integral element of Punk music. Over time, even those who did play well self consciously introduced dissonance and spontaneous mis-takes into their playing. The dissonant sound of early Punk, coupled with the unabashed admission that its musicians were in it for no less utopian reason than the money, lent Nihilist Punk music its authenticity.
Advanced production techniques such as multi-track recording make it less important for musicians to play well or even together. A multi-tracked album is far less a musician's product than the producer's arrangement. The lack of adequate production budgets forced most Punk bands to play live and/or record directly onto eight-track. These reproductions contained many of the errors and discordance found in a live performance. An entire Punk album was often recorded in ten hours, compared to the seven hundred hours of studio time spent in producing the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album.
A Punk reproduction signified as a recorded production, unlike polished studio recordings in which the musicians themselves increasingly fade into the technologically-mediated background. This assertion is not a claim that Punk music's claim to authenticity lies in its unmediated presence; rather, it is precisely the opposite. Punk albums, tapes, and later compact discs, were obvious mediations, unlike "perfect" digitally recorded pop music (truly hyperreal). This naked admission; "Look, we're not trying to make it smooth," is the source of Punk music's authenticity. Today's post-punk music is digitally produced with dissonance added, a postmodern form of authentic inauthenticity.
The absurdities and excesses of Nihilist Punk consumption patterns are more easily understood when placed in the context of late seventies/early eighties "stagflation," McDonaldization, and cultural spectacle. It was neither working class angst nor middle class boredom which provided a welcome reception for Nihilist Punk in the United States. British Punks screamed "NO FUTURE." But Punks in the U.S. manifested an unconcern for the present. This present was fraught with contradictions. The unemployed, underemployed, and economically immobilized were hailed at every opportunity with injunctions to consume, express individuality, and fulfill a future of infinite possibility through consumption.
Nihilist punks responded with a vengeance. Their dystopian consumption practices were both a reaction to the utopian sixties and a radical affirmation of consumer culture's way: "Scoffing at purity and transcendence, punk reveled in the geeky, trashy, artificial consumer schlock so abhorred by the hippies. Punk's manic collage of kitsch and deviancy (from Hefty bags to safety pins to bondage paraphernalia) announced its disaffection from both middle and working class standards" (Goldthorpe, 1992:38). The Nihilist Punk body was a commodified spectacle, a conduit for capitalist detritus. Nihilist Punks took consumer hedonism to its outer limits. Their consumption was restrained by lack of money but enabled by the kind of self-promotional creativity that could only emerge from socialization in the spectacle. The Nihilists tried it all, sampling whatever was in reach. That it ended in exhaustion and dissolution was anticipated in the music: I was a hippie, I was a skater, I had a surfboard . . . I was so jacked up, I was so drugged up, I was so fucked up . . . (Black Flag).
Nihilist drug consumption was a world away from the mellow, organic, contemplative drugs of the love children of the sixties and early seventies. Nihilist Punks embraced harder, more self-destructive, consciousness-obliterating substances like heroin, or hyperconscious amethamphetamine. These powerfully addictive substances were typical Punk "all or nothing" responses to mainstream culture. The ideal Nihilist Punk consumer was not a worker. Heroin addiction is antithetical to consistent, productive, labor. The ascetic laboring body, quickly becoming a thing of the past by the end of the sixties, was replaced by a hedonistic site of consumption. The mutilation of the body, tattooing the face, piercing the eyebrows, lips, and cheeks, also signifies a celebration of consumption, ornamentation, and apocalypse. These practices, whether influenced by sadomasochism or a simpler desire to shock or construct insurmountable social barriers, amounted to a refusal of the normalization of the body. Hebdige sees these practices as the greatest of refusals: "To wear a mohican or to have your face tattooed, is to burn most of your bridges (p. 32).
The careful combination of controlled hedonism and ascetic restraint required for the reproduction of late capitalist consumer society was foregone in favor of a rampant one-dimensional celebration of consumer excess. Nihilist Punks dredged up the cultural effluent and displayed it prominently on their bodies. They brought sex and bondage paraphernalia out of the closet and into the streets. Their consumption practices served as a form of immanent critique. Nihilist Punks took the system at (some of) its word(s). They appropriated kitsch, publicity, and spectacle, pursuing it all with a bit too much zeal.
I have called this mode of selective cultural accommodation and overaccumulation "immanent critique" because it was not an attempt to ascend to a pristine position outside of commodity relations. It was a mode of decadent celebration, however short lived, which reflected the otherwise refracted logic of consumer capitalism. Dredging up day-glo excrement and displaying it in public, Nihilist Punk, for a brief moment in time before MTV, was a bid for authenticity. These rituals of resistance did not force the system to mutate but to update its strategy as it flexed to co-opt and sterilize Punk practices. Nihilist Punk exploded. Fragments flew in all directions. Some were picked up, polished a bit, and marketed by the culture industry. However, Nihilist Punk also contained the seeds of a new Punk asceticism, Straight Edge.
Straight Edge: We want control of our bodies
"Here are our demands. We want control of our bodies. Decisions will now be ours. You carry out your noble actions. We will carry our noble scars. Reclamation. . . " (Fugazi, 1991).
"We owe you nothing. You have no control. Merchandise keeps us in line. And common sense says its by design. What could a business man ever want more? Than to have us sucking in his store. We owe you nothing. You have no control" (Fugazi, 1990).
What is called Straight Edge Punk, also known as Positive Punk, emerged from the perceived failures of Nihilist Punk. If the Nihilists were authentic Punks, the Straight Edge movement is an attempt to be authentic people. If the Nihilist aesthetic had been worldly excess, the straight edge response was hermetic asceticism. The Nihilist body was a conduit; commodities, drugs and sex coursed through it. The Straight Edge body, by contrast, was a temple.
Straight Edge music is epitomized by Minor Threat, whose frontperson, Ian MacKaye used the the term in a song called (appropriately) "Straight Edge." Straight Edge is formally minimalist, tight, and furiously fast paced. It is "serious" (often maudlin) music, as are the performers. There are no Straight Edge heros. There are no stars. Fugazi (whose lead singer is Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat) gives sober, affectless performances, playing their music, not the crowd. Fugazi produce and sell their own music directly (Dischord records). Big, commercial, "inauthentic" productions are eschewed in favor of self- contained production. The key word here is control. If the music is always-already a commodity, Fugazi will do the commodifying.
The sell out is the pre-eminent concern for Straight Edge Punks. A wholehearted rejection of spectacle, self-promotion, and excess, Straight Edge asceticism is a pared-down, lean (needless to say masculinized) bid for authenticity, romantic resistance, and the negation of the system. Straight Edge provides direct opposition of tactics to strategy. If Nihilist Punks spawned the "postmodern sensibility" or "ironic nihilism," they also gave rise to the staunchly modernist, indeed existentialist, subjectivity of Straight Edge. MacKaye's lyrics revolve around the romantic, heroic, resistant, individual. The Straight Edge punk has very few needs, society being the least of them: "I don't even think about speed, That's something I just don't need, I've got the straight edge . . . Always gonna keep in touch, Never gonna use a crutch" (Minor Threat, 1984).
This much more blatant effort at resistance is authenticity as purity. It is not the naive purity of communal hippies, but the cautious, self- critical, austere purity of pessimistic optimists. Straight Edge Punks are not waiting for any revolution or revelation, they are putting the pieces together from what they have. As de Certeau says, they are making do. They define themselves against the corrupt, consumerist, order. This difference is the source of their authenticity: "Make do with what you have, Take what you can get, Pay no mind to us, We're just a Minor Threat" (Minor Threat, 1984).
Conclusion: Post-Punk's Inauthentic Authenticity?
During a local performance, Fred Frith, avant-garde guitarist and radical organizer, a cult figure with an explicitly oppositional image, asked an audience comprised almost entirely of college students, who had voted for Reagan in 1983. Imagine his surprise to find that over three quarters of his fans had (Grossberg 1992, p. 169).
Punk's anti-consumption tactics were revolutionary for those who participated. A Punk politics of everyday life prevails, in dispersed enclaves in most United States cities. But what about the mainstreaming of Punk? Reams of journalistic paper have been splattered with vats of jingoistic ink lamenting the superficiality of the post-punks, the co-optation of Punk, and/or the sell out. Canned resistance?
Fugazi is still making music "their own way" despite the aestheticization, integration, and partial normalization of Punk. That Punk has become a consumer and spectator sport and a part-time passion for weekend warriors is lamentable. However, the spaces of potential freedom that Punk opened up are not nailed shut.
I would like to end where I began, in forwarding the assertion that Punk consumption practices were a bid for authenticity in an inauthentic, commodified, social system. A logic of anti-consumption is not an escape from commodification/consumer society and the relations of power that are intertwined with daily life in such a society. It was, and continues to be, a life experiment, a form of resistance, and a WAY, a form of "making do."
 Interpellation is Althusser's term for the effect of ideology on individual subjectivity. An automatic ideology of which one is dimly aware nevertheless has the power to "hail" one, to make one reply in certain terms, to recognize oneself as having to respond as a subject of its implied Master Subject.
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