Ivory Minority: Punk in the University

By Joseph MartinJanuary 21, 2013

Ivory Minority: Punk in the University

Punkademics by Zack Furness

EARLY IN THE DYLANOLOGY CLASSIC Invisible Republic (later rebranded The Old, Weird America), critic Greil Marcus deconstructs the early 1960s folk movement with the cruel detail of a fanboy scorned. “Art was the speech of the folk revival — and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all,” he says. “Rather, life — a certain kind of life — equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.” By Marcus’s lights, that version of life was “defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion”; the folkies, he suggests, were paternalistic and oddly self-aggrandizing, at root a cachet of class tourists dressed in utopianist togs. Worse, all this feel-good slumming warped the movement’s music into hymns for a bourgeois mythology — tunes serving the gospel of pop fetishism and reliant on a view of the oppressed as victims of a world the folkies “graciously” decided to reject. “When art equals life there is no art,” he concludes, “but when life equals art there are no people.” No matter how alive to civil rights and internal politics, he seems to say, the folkies just couldn’t construct a terribly self-aware or adaptive movement. Instead, they let neo-Wobbly ideals turn them into hopeless cultural Luddites, progressives who refused to account for the vagaries of actual social progress.

That in mind, it’s less than shocking that Marcus sidestepped (for the most part) his Boomer cohort’s Big Chill-y self-congratulation and spent the 1970s and 1980s covering the explosive ascent of punk rock. In its toddling and tween years, punk might as well have been folk’s chain-smoking, caustic antidote, a worldly-wise answer to the folkies’ senses of tradition and future focus. Borne of equal parts performance art and urban squalor, punk tended towards world-bending, Situationist subversion, as well as a skeptic’s love for the existential “Now” — a “No Future” ethic, as the Sex Pistols famously yowled. If the genre had a primal objective it was immediacy, the urge to create a moment: the Pistols uttering “fuck” on the BBC, say, or Los Angeles hardcore mavens Fear causing a riot on Saturday Night Live. In the punk world, gesture and creative empowerment were values unto themselves. And, as any reader of Marcus’s punk half-history, 1989’s spiraling Lipstick Traces, might attest, this emphasis on moment and autonomy made punk nearly impossible to pin down. Though theorists like Dick Hebdige tried to frame punk through the lens of “style” (most famously in 1979’s Subculture), the form imploded and regrouped like a sneering phoenix, swapping clothing and musical elements and “stars” and cities of scene-wide import on an almost yearly basis.

As the form wandered into adulthood, however, that mania for reinvention began to strain against outside forces. Punk’s present-tense power — so startling at its inception — broke into the mainstream via bands like Green Day and Nirvana, both infecting and becoming infected by Western culture itself; the result was, largely, a Manic Panic–stained syncretization of style and meaning. Writ large, punk came to represent a type of dress and performative anger rather than a coherent attitude, its meaning as atomized as other pop constructs like “rock ‘n’ roll” (or, hell, “pop”). More curious, however, was the underground’s equal and opposite reaction: a shift to a more intellectual, highly politicized way of being. Shepherded along by a subculture-wide valorization of DIY ethics and a growing resistance to its own institutional misogyny, seeded by the neofeminist riot grrrl movement, this variation of punk came soaked in activism, and its adherents were more traditionally progressive than their forebears. More interested in deconstructing the national stage than taking it, these punks began to stage 1960s-style political concerts, align themselves with charities, avoid the moneyed grip of major record labels, and publish zines like Punk Planet — essentially a niche take on political mags like The Nation and The Baffler. As punk’s national reputation grew, its retrenchment began to crystallize into something both righteous and self-righteous. And so punk, beautifully open-ended at its inception, derailed into something not unlike Marcus’s hapless folk movement.

Or not. This is just one version of the story, and, if punk’s oceans of Xeroxed zines and beachhead of oral histories (Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and Marc Spitz’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk, to name just two) have proven anything, it’s that the genre remains inscrutable and personal. Lacking a politics beyond impulse and skepticism, it can signify as a coherent set of values for one fan and as an invitation to noisy nihilism for another. And it’s this vagueness that makes Punkademics, curated by Columbia College Chicago professor Zack Furness, such a strange, flawed, and absorbing artifact. Ostensibly centered around the plight of the “punkademic” — loosely defined as grad-level thinkers with a foot or two in punk culture — Punkademics places punk’s greater identity crisis within the highly ritualized, systematic petri dish of the average university, presenting readers with wool-dyed skeptics who have chosen to monetize their own skepticism. In the process, it attempts to outline how punk has been represented in academic discussion and, on occasion, construct a Howard Zinn-style cultural recovery project that pits punks, now in the belly of the narrative-creating beast, against academia’s bias towards dehumanized discourse. “It is a matter […] of who gets to speak for whom,” Furness intones with sociological gravitas in the book’s introductory essay, “who gets to shape public knowledge(s) that inform the ways in which we collectively remember people, events, institutions, ideas, cultural practices and cultural history.” Or, as Estrella Torrez and Dylan Miner growl in their Punkademics piece “Turning Point: Claiming the University as a Punk Space,” “The very nature of this collection presupposes the antagonistic relationship between the autonomy of punk and structured nature of the university.”

This all makes for great intellectual theater and, at least initially, it’s hard not to cheer on Furness and Co.’s undertaking. While punk remains a fairly niche field of inquiry, more the domain of pop criticism (à la Ben Marcus or Sasha Frere-Jones) than scholarly critique, its longevity, canonization in cultural studies circles, and grimy-fingered allure for idealistic graduate types practically guarantees further study in America’s social sciences programs. This in mind, Furness’s description of his book as a preemptive strike seems almost inspired:

Through a combination of essays, interviews, biographical sketches, and artwork, one of the aims of this collection is to [reframe punk] by way of example as opposed to merely stacking critique on top of critique. While not without its own limitations, Punkademics tries to offer more nuanced perspectives on various aspects of punk and hardcore — and in particular DIY punk music and culture —that stem from contributors’ academic backgrounds as well as their collective participation within and experience of punk scenes […] Given the fact that little research has been done about where punks end up […] this book offers some tangible examples […] inasmuch as colleges and universities function as some of the places where people with “punk” values can […] potentially put their ethics and ideas into practice; though not without great effort, considerable friction, and at times, complete train wrecks.

By pitching Punkademics as a series of experiential narratives, Furness presents his contributors’ work as study-worthy primary texts rather than scholarly pieces worthy of peer review. In doing so, he imbues the collection with both an insider’s credibility and an observer’s cool scrutiny: a cultural studies professor by trade, Furness gets to appear more interested in capturing the interaction between punks and the academic vocation, recording the creation of “punk discourses,” than actively committing to a position. Call it the academic equivalent of having his cake and gnawing at it, too. “In the greater scheme of things, there is clearly much less at stake in the narration of punk than there is, for example, in the stories told about immigration, Indigenous land claims, prisons, or the philosophical and economic underpinnings of Neoliberalism,” he allows. “Nevertheless, they matter.” Stuck with the looming cavil of overfamiliarity with his subject matter —the urgent need to tell punk’s story that spurred on Punkademics in the first place —Furness spends much of his intro framing the whole shebang as a kind of sociopolitical sandbox. Borrowing from the Industrial Workers of the World preamble, he suggests a simple, brainstorm-y goal: “create something new in the shell of the old.”

It’s a compelling sentiment, but an impossible position — one of almost chicken-and-egg proportions. While the “sandbox” model sounds obvious and doable on paper, in practice it leads to an amorphousness and lack of method, defying both adequate scholarship and street-level reportage. Worse, it ends up being a dicey jumping-off point, and those contributors who attempt to follow Furness’s identity-first lead tend to faceplant, raging hollowly against a vague university machine. In aforementioned opener “Turning Point,” Miner and Torrez try to present “punkademics” as a movement already in progress and teeming with revolutionary brio:

How do we, as punkademics, continue to resist the process of institutionalization, [sic] while working within an institution? Moreover, how do we do so when, in the eyes of many students, we represent the power and legitimacy of the university?

Sweat-soaked rhetoric aside, these are compelling questions. But, drunk on its own punkitude, the essay hits the skids from there, hopping from useful engagement to doctrinaire hokum. In the midst of an ill-advised critique of university-sponsored volunteer work, the authors claim that “[while] punks come from privileged sectors of dominant society, to identify as punk is a maneuver to intentionally position one’s self in solidarity with oppressed and colonized people”; the intended takeaway, we discover, is that poorly informed student volunteers, holding neither the Marxist theory background nor the “profound admiration and solidarity” with the oppressed that many punks claim, are failures of volunteerism. Elsewhere, the writers posit perceived “attacks” on activist faculty around the nation as attacks on their “identities as punks” in the academy, which “are intimately intertwined with radical feminism, anticapitalist self-organization, Third and Fourth World liberation, veganism and food justice, and DIY.” Though these values are hardly unique in academic circles, it’s a provocative (if debatable) point. But, again, Miner and Torrez devolve into rootless “us vs. them” paranoia: “While neither of us know the specifics of these [attacks], they are indicative of a system which speaks of institutional ‘diversity,’ yet is unwilling to reevaluate the institution’s relationship to counter-hegemonic or challenging forms of knowledge.” Skimping on the hard evidence and objectivity of real scholarship, Miner’s and Torrez’s attempt at a unified “punkademic” front feels like a pile of bombastic, ideologically straitjacketed condescension — in other words, the worst of both punk and academia.

Other similarly liminal essays fare better, opting for a lighter, more searching tone. Ross Haenfler’s “Punk Ethics and the Mega-University,” rather than using punk self-identification as a somewhat ironic cudgel, does a handy job of itemizing how his skepticism and DIY work ethic helped him develop a plainclothes pedagogy anchored by critical thinking skills. Meanwhile, Alastair Gordon’s “Building Recording Studios Whilst Bradford Burned: DIY Punk Ethics in a Field of Force” imagines the “punkademic” as an inherently compromised figure, detailing the mental gymnastics required to both participate in and collect sociological data on a UK anarcho-punk collective’s slow construction of a recording studio. Further along in Punkademics, Torrez even returns to present “Punk Pedagogy: Education for Liberation and Love,” a more personal story about trying to run a class like a hardcore show, with results a bit more sympathetic (if still misguided) than “Turning Point.” At their best, as in “Mega-University,” these identity-driven pieces provide an insightful look at ideology both in action and at war with itself; rather than outright rejecting the university, for example, Haenfler accepts the vagaries of his job while striving for greater intellectual freedom. “It’s ironic that academics have more autonomy than many […] and yet we build and maintain our own prison of status hierarchies and self-imposed competition,” he notes. “Punkademics can hold out for something better.

Still, Haenfler’s uplifting, if minor, victory aside, Punkademics generates its brightest critical sparks when essayists stop performing their punkness and get to the meat of the “punkademic” personality crisis. In an early highlight, “Punk Rock Docs: A Qualitative Study,” California State University, Fullerton adjunct Waleed Rashidi provides a sociological survey of self-identifying punks who have fled to academia, with all the controls (that is, participants must have spent two years on tour, released X amount of records, and hold a terminal degree), impersonal data collection techniques, and categorical analysis typical of such a study. Raiding his academic toolbox, Rashidi skips the ID politics and gets down to exposing the punkademic skeleton, presenting hard details about the punk-to-PhD set’s motivations and class backgrounds. In an anonymous interview, for example, one of Rashidi’s subjects clarifies the throughline from concert to conference:

The whole punk rock thing is questioning authority … You’re told one thing, and you’re like, “What the hell, that doesn’t make any sense.” […] And that, in my opinion, might be one of the reasons why you find a lot of academics that come out of punk rock because of a questioning attitude … and thirst to gain more knowledge about a topic.

But while the study’s Q&A format makes for wonderfully clear and contextualized testimony (direct answers to direct questions!), the primary value of “Punk Rock Docs” is how it does its scholarly job — whatever solidarity they’re selling, it turns out that many PhD punks carry the same middle-to-upper class roots, parents with multiple degrees, and sense of privilege and possibility as their less countercultural brethren. Confronted with Rashidi’s method, essentially an atomic breakdown of his subjects’ lifestyles, subjects tend to leapfrog proclamations in favor of blunt truths. When asked why he (or she) became enamored of punk rock, one anonymous subject gets right to the adolescent heart of his (or her) affiliation: “Well, I was alienated.”

As confessions go, it’s pretty obvious; even the most casual observer of punk rock knows it’s the province of self-identified outcasts. But as Punkademics rambles on, Rashidi’s subject, so candid in the nameless environs of sociological study, starts to feel like an oracle of the whole “punkademic” problem. Punk rock, like a pack-a-day Lucky Strikes habit or a dalliance with The Veganomicon, tends to begin as a teenage affectation before solidifying into a full-blown way of being, and after 200-plus pages of half-formed personal narratives (Curry Malott’s two-page half-apologia “Finding Balance in the University,” Rubén Ortiz-Torres’s elliptical memoir Mexipunx), arcane nitpicking (Tavia Nyong’o’s “The Intersections of Punk and Queer in the 1970s: No Future … for You!”; Michael Siciliano’s interview with professor Alan O’Connor, “Maximumsocialscience”), and whining about perceived discipline-wide deficiencies (Maria Elena Buszek’s “Her Life Was Saved By Rock and Roll: Toward a Feminist Punk Ethic/Aesthetic”), it becomes hard to say if Furness’s titular notion even makes for a desirable adult identity. Instead, the purpose of “punkademia” — insofar as it signifies as a real thing — starts to feel entirely abstract, more a fertile seam for Rashidi-style data sets than a uniquely troubled and morally beset lifestyle. Despite Furness’s supposed allergy to “stacking critique upon critique,” the kings of Punkademics are those who use basic academic protocol to interrogate punk attitude, winnow out “punk discourses,” and pitch punk ethics as something worthy of a greater pan-academic glom.

It’s no surprise, then, that Punkademics’ high point comes when one essayist, Texas A&M professor Daniel S. Traber, figures out how to do all three. Bundling punk’s useful wheat even as it toasts its damning chaff, Traber’s “L.A.’s ‘White Minority’: Punk and the Contradictions of Self-Marginalization” takes Rashidi’s class implications and throws critical halogens on their darker corners, the result creating a true “punkademic” balance. While Traber agrees that alienated punks’ “self-marginalization is not lacking in subversive promise” and the form has “established a permanent alternative to the corporate apparatus of the music industry,” he presents the subculture’s retreat from middle-class roots as a charade of resistance:

The choice starts to lose its thrust as a commentary on the parent culture’s own litany of naturalized beliefs upon closer examination: that success is the result more of hard work than the privilege accorded to race and class (is it not such privileges that give them the option not to succeed?); that material wealth is synonymous with freedom […]; that their way of life constitutes the highest level of progress (then why else reject it by going “downward”?) […] Instead of tearing down the boundaries, [punks] use them to sustain a false sense of autonomy […] without the Other they cease to exist.

Like Marcus’s tough love take on the folk movement, the analysis feels pained and invigorating, the brutal account of a self-aware acolyte. And if “Self-Marginalization” stands out in Furness’s volume, it’s because its search for a “punk discourse” seems, well, punk — a skeptical, freethinking read of the subculture’s history that uses Punkademics’ open forum as an opportunity for fresh reflection. After page after page of “punk rock saved my life” rigmarole and anti-university trash talk, Traber has the good sense to consider punk as an occasionally self-defeating, oppressive system in its own right, and his leveled rhetorical playing field provides a welcome germ for more curious, expansive explorations of punk’s story.

It’s work like this that, ultimately, gives Punkademics its odd power. While the plight of the “punkademic” ends up greatly exaggerated — more flyleaf bait for anarchist bookstores than anything — essays like Traber’s and Rashidi’s, both intimate with and honest about punk as a lifestyle, serve to expand punk as a subject of study and make it feel like a study-worthy movement with real social implications, historical interest, and intellectual weight. Still, even the book’s lapses into zealotry, listless griping, incoherence, and boosterism feel important, if only because Furness’s schizoid arrangement throws them into such plain relief. As Marcus points out, rigid strictures and reality evasion are the death of real counterculture, as they necessarily ignore the ebbs and flows of the rejected — but still wholly extant — mainstream society. Punkademics, with its messy spectrum of punk POVs, offers scholarly rigor as tonic: a way of finding new perspective and, perhaps, building something new in the shell of both punk and the university.


LARB Contributor

Joseph Martin teaches writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Community College of Baltimore County.  He received his MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and his work has appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, Bookslut, and Tin House, among others.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.