Archive for February, 2008

New Books: Peripatetic History

Sunday, February 24th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

André Breton worshiped aimlessness, wandering through the city and facilitating chance encounters. One was the encounter with Nadja, the subject of his 1928 novel by the same name. Such surreal narrations established a literary form of free association and an intellectual discipline of peripatetic urban research. The late-19th-century flâneur wandered the streets of Paris in disengaged poetic alienation, which for Charles Baudelaire (and later Walter Benjamin) became the archetype of modernity and aesthetic experience. The narrative meandering of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is another classic paradigm (Swann’s Way is literally a road). Yet again in the 1960s, a second generation of Surrealists, the Situationist International, refined the method of urban drift (dérive) into an arbitrary science; the Beats did the same in the US (plus Algeria, and even Greece). The Baudelaire-Surrealist-Situationist-Beat tradition was still palpable in the intellectual climate of the late-1980s and early-1990s; consider among a multitude of examples, Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 classic Stranger than Paradise, which has just been released on DVD (Criterion Series, 2007). I’m immensely grateful that Clemson’s library already has a copy. And to wrap a thread between this and the last posting on punk archaeology, let me highlight Joe Strummer’s strong relationship with Jarmusch (he even appeared in one of his movies, Mystery Train, 1989). The Situationists bled into the Clash (and punk) through their producer Bernie Rhodes, who was inspired by the Situationists. Rhodes was the intellectual directing the Clash into theoretical coherence (and away from silly love songs). It was Rhodes, for instance, that convinced Paul Simonon (bassist) to design the band’s clothes and fill them with texts, to emulate the Situationists’ famous psycho-maps (Chris Salewicz, Redemption Song, New York, 2006, p. 151).

 

I mention this intellectual tradition of urban wandering and psychogeography because I’ve noticed a resurgence of peripatetic literature in the last few months. By no means related to each other, or even claiming a common genealogy, a number of new authors explore wandering as a structure for history writing. For those of us who study and teach historical objects, monuments and landscapes, the model of the aimless memoir brings some excitement into our jobs. Most of the books that I will discuss below are not academic publications, but they manage to tell academic stories. In reviewing one of those books, Mark Mazower asked, “who would dissent from the desire to rescue history from the curators, the academics and the heritage industry experts and to inject it with the passion that will win its new devotees?” (The Nation, Feb. 11 2008, p. 43) As an academic, and hence a member of the heritage industry, my ears perk up. I fling my doors open to the flaneur and invite him up into my dull academic office hours — the student don’t come anyway.

Although a couple of years old, I should include Rebecca Solnit’s, A Field Guide to Getting Lost(New York, 2005) into the great recent works on wandering (the hardback is on remainder on Amazon for only $6.49). Many of you may have noticed that 2007 was the year of Jack Kerouac since On the Road celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Remember how 2005 was the year of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” another 50th Anniversary? A couple of weekends ago (while visiting my good friend Joe Alchermes for dinner in Manhattan), I chanced upon a wonderful exhibit displaying Kerouac’s original manuscript and other paraphernalia at the New York Public Library (the exhibit is on till March 16, 2008). I will say more about this NYC visit because I also chanced uponDamien Hirst’s installation at the Lever House. But this blog-posting is not about my derivee in New York; it is about some interesting new books that can be read while siting.

The new books are Will Self’s, Psychogeography, William Vollmann’s, Riding Toward Everywhere, Geert Mak’s, In Europe and Sarah Vowell’s, Assassination Vacation. I should note at the outset that I have not read these books yet. They’ve come to my attention through a variety of sources (the Nation, the Sunday New York Times, National Public Radio, or Public Radio International). As I write, they sit on my bookshelf (or my Amazon cart). So what will follow is less of a review and more of an invitation. This is what I’ll be reading in the next few months; want to join me?

Will Self and Ralph Steadman, Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum ofPsyche and Place (New York, 2007). Will Self is a British writer and journalist with a regular column on the Independent. I’ve glimpsed through a previous collection, Junk Mail (2006), but really learned about this book from Kurt Andersen’s radio show, Studio 360 ( #849, Dec. 7, 2007). The Studio 369 interview begins where the book begins. On a trip from London to New York, Self walks from his home to Heathrow and after the flight from JFK to Manhattan. This becomes an act of resilience, a political gesture against the intentional placelessness of modern topography (with slight 911 overtones). The book is illustrated by Ralph Steadman, the British cartoonist best known for his illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson. The illustrations are reason enough to buy the book; Steadman’s style revives the surreal visions of Max Ernst with a dosage of George Grosz and Francis Bacon.

William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere (New York, 2008). Vollmann is also a journalist/novelist. I haven’t read much of his work, I’ve only browsed through his recent historical novel Europe Central (2005), which won the National Book Award. His new book is about jumping on trains and traveling aimlessly. See review in NYT Book Review. Vollmann’s book has a different flavor as his interests fall on the world of the underclasses, the hobos who actually ride the trains. The journalistic research on poverty dominates his earlier Poor People(2007; just released in paperback). Riding Toward Everywhere is not sociological or preachy. It has two dominant motifs, a desire to reconnect with an earlier generation of blue collar American males immersed in industry, metal and machines (Vollmann’s father and grandfather) and a call for liberation. Vollmann wants to inspire his contemporaries to escape with him.

Geert Mak, In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century (New York, 2007).
This sounds like an amazing enterprise. Dutch journalist Geert Mak has been traveling through Europe’s modern monuments, the places where Europe’s tortured identity was written. There, he investigates the vestiges of cultural memory that remain in the 21st century. As the European identity drifts away from the burden of historical conscience (inescapable in the 20th century), its landmarks dissipate in memory and commemoration. This books wanders through those places looking for their past in their present. Mak’s earlier book is interesting, too;Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth Century Europe (London, 2001) documents rural depopulation and its effects on the European psyche. Jorwerd, Mak’s home village in the northwest Netherlands (Friesland), forms his case study. In Europe was beautifully reviewed by Mark Mazower, “Rambling Man,” The Nation (Feb. 11, 2008), pp. 38-43. Mazower, a historian at Columbia University, is prolific (The BalkansDark Continent;Salonica); his best work and a must for ANYONE working on Greece is Inside Hitler’s Greece(New Haven, 1993). More recently, he also edited a fascinating collection of essays dealing with the effects of the Greek Civil War in ordinary society, see After the War Was Over (Princeton, 1993). If Mazower endorses this ramble (see quote in first paragraph), then I cannot wait to read it.

Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation (New York, 2005; new in paperback).
Sarah Vowell is one of the amazing young journalists contributing to Ira Glass’s This American Life on Public Radio International. The premise of her book is visiting every place that an American president has been assassinated. This peculiar self-imposed tourism becomes a narrative of American history as well as a documentary project on the present reality of those historical landmarks. You can hear Vowell speak about the Lincoln Memorial in last week’sStudio 360, “American Icons: The Lincoln Memorial” on(#907, Feb. 15, 2008).

Happy reading. Tell me what you think. I’m personally very excited about these books.

Punk Suburbs

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis
For this post, I’ll cheat and direct you to another blog that contains some brilliant comments on Punk Archaeology. Ordinarily William Caraher’s “The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World” is devoted to archaeological topics (methodological, theoretical, and other), providing an additional insight into the activities at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where Bill is currently Carpenter Professor. Although written in Athens, this blog also addresses the regional complexities of North Dakota, where Bill teaches when he’s not on-leave. So, I’m thrilled to have distracted Bill towards yet another of his interdisciplinary interests. Without further ado, please visit, “Punk Archaeology: Some Preliminary Thoughts.”

You’ll find some wonderful theoretical insights and an urban complement that I had inadvertently ignored, namely the suburb. Having bought into punk’s own urban mythology, I’ve failed to appreciate the suburban origins of the music; as Bill points out, Garage Rock is by definition suburban. Perhaps I’m also avoiding the scene’s most contemporary phase, residing almost exclusively in mall merchandising. I still have not made up my mind whether I like mall-punk (Green Day, Rancid, Offspring). Or simply, I’ve had my nose buried in British bibliography. I’m deeply humbled by my cyber conversation with Bill across the waters. This is truly the first proof I’ve ever received that blogging can have practical intellectual value, helping towards a more communal form of brainstorming.

Since this very posting is outwardly directive, I include some indispensable secondary literature. This is by no means exhaustive, but includes the most enduring general histories that I have read.

Azerrad, Michael. 2001. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, Boston, New York and London

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London. (2nd edition, 2005)

Marcus, Greil. 1989. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge,Mass.

McNeil, Legs, and Gilliam McCain. 1996. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk,New York. (New edition, 2006)

Savage, Jon. 1992. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, New York.

101ers

Monday, February 18th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

The Clash front man Joe Strummer started his first band in 1974. Their name “The 101’ers” reveals the urban domestic origins of punk, named after 101 Walterton Road, where the band members squatted. Strummer had just bought his iconic Fender Telecaster; among other odd jobs he trimmed flower beds at Hyde Park and was janitor for the English National Opera. Earlier in the winter 1972-73, Strummer had a truly archaeological job, working as a gravedigger (as did Rod Stewart) The story of the band is told in Strummer’s official biography, Chris Salewicz, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (New York, 2006). Strummer and the rest of the 101’ers lived and practiced in the basement, which had a dirt floor. Walterton Street was a war time ghetto, which the government was slowly tearing down, house-by-house. 101 Walterton was the last house on the block razed in 1975. The squatters then moved to 36 St. Luke Road, close to a West Indian community. Essentially, the 101’ers were inhabiting an abandoned urban carcass. The house had no interior toilet, no hot water, no electricity and was flea infested. Electricity was illegally tapped from the public grid (Salewicz, pp. 116, 118, 129). The photo on the left, from Salewicz, p. 110, gives an architectural image of punk’s origins, rising out of dilapidated brick houses of the 19th-century. Spaces such as these would become dwellings and performing spaces for countless bands in the UK and the USA.

 

Although 101 Walterton does not exist anymore, it was located at 51°31’29.83″N, 0°12’3.08″W (lat/long) and can be visited via GoogleEarth. Technically, quatting means the occupation of abandoned buildings without official permission or payment of rent. For a global overview, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squatting.

Masonry brick wall became central to the iconography of punk. In stark low budget black-and-white photography, the brick matrix provided dramatic visuality to the music. An exaggerated Xerox manipulation, further contrasted the black brick against the white mortar. Consider the architectural backdrop on the Ramones self-titled debut album (1976), a graffitied masonry wall from Lower Manhattan (probably outside CBGB’s). Similarly, when the Clash released their first (also self-titled) record in 1977, it also set the band within a highly dramatic brick wall. The photo was taken by Kate Simon for an article in Sounds in late 1976. The setting was an alleyway opposite the front door of the band’s Rehearsal Rehearsals building in Camden Town (Salewicz 181). The 1980 album cover for Sandinista also featured a brick-wall background. The aesthetics of bare brick walls contrasts with those of a decade earlier. When Andy Warhol moved into the Factory in January 1964, he had Billy Name (a lighting technician) cover the bare brick walls with silver. The demise of the Factory in 1968 corresponds with the pealing of the silver application. Punk did not have glitter. It’s also noteworthy to compare the punk walls with rock’s most famous masonry, namely The Wall by Pink Floyd in 1979. The 2-LP album sleeves highlight a crisply drafted wall, pure whiteness inscribed by pure black lines. Above this orthographic drawing, we have the blotchy graffiti of the band’s name and record title. True to its conceptual art-rock narrative, this wall exists in a fantastic, timeless, highly representational graphic realm. Although of similar iconography, it is foreign to the rough and real bricks of the Ramones and the Clash.

Punk Archaeology

Saturday, February 16th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis
Punk rock seems to be one of the most urban music movements of the late 20th-century in contrast to the Arcadian aesthetics of the hippies. An aversion to nature helped the punks define themselves against the hippies, one of their many professed enemies. From the outdoor concerts like Woodstock to the creating of self-sufficient alternative communities, the Sixties fit into romantic tradition where the countryside reveals paths to goodness, hope and rebirth; hippies were the offspring of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Enlightenment and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism. The desire to build a new society took hippies outdoors, dancing on the tabula rasa, living physically within nature, freely cultivating natural substances that induced heightened sensorial experiences and practicing non-hierarchical organic social relations like free love. Cities, the consummate product of the bourgeoisie, were not good places for such an enterprise. Even if dwelling in urban centers, the hippies abandoned the modern city as an intellectual project. This is not to say that alternative communities did not flourish in cities. San Francisco is a good example, but even here the image of Golden GatePark dominates. The political component of the Sixties had a visible urban manifestation in the anti-Vietnam and the Civil-Rights movement. We can hardly visualize 1968 without urban demonstrations. And we can hardly generalize the Sixties; experiences varied from region to region. May 1968 in Paris, for example, was undeniably one of the highest expressions of urbanism (incited by Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists). But was the Parisian left, really hippie? Already we encounter some technical problems in defining “the Sixties.” The French experience differs greatly from the American experience; not only was it more fundamentally urban, but also more politically structured around the Communist party. 

However we encapsulate the Sixties radical generation, it was undeniably different than the generation of the late Seventies and Eighties. Something happened in 1977. The contemporaries were keenly self-aware of articulating a new movement and, in retrospect, they historicized it in their narratives. One distinctive difference between punks and hippies lies in their urban commitment. Punks found the hippies idealistic, deluded and soft. Replacing escapism with nihilism, the punks embraced urban blight and tailored their identities to fit within the physical spaces of abandoned urban form. Rather than communing with nature, punks squatted in the city; they literally inhabited abandoned buildings and shaped an aggressively edgy existence out of domestic ruins. Growing up at the heights of suburban flight and the demise of the American city, the punks were the first post-industrial generation. Hippies, on the other hand, grew up at the heights of industrialism, benefiting from America’s postwar prosperity. The same industrial might that won World War II had been redirected to domestic social realms: cheap suburban houses, comforts, appliances, social conformity and streamlining. The American dream of the Fifties was a dream of victory. The hippies grew up in a prosperous, although socially constraining environment. Coming of age within the coherence of the Fifties household, they accumulated a profound social confidence. If their parents could reinvent—and rule—the world so could they, except that the world they desired was different. Living the optimism of the American dream, deceived them into unreachable goals, such as creating an equally universal alternative.

The punks emerged at the tail end of economic prosperity. In the words of Jon Savage, they came together “in a network of relationships as complicated as a the rabbit-warren London slums of Dickens’s novels” (England’s Dreaming, New York, 1992, p. 3) Their internalized sensibility was one of coping, resisting and collapse. The punks experienced abandonment the way that the hippies experienced flight. Whether conceived as a music movement, a youth movement, or a cultural movement, they created a pervasive ethos with various characteristics, including an archaeological one. I will explore the connection between punk and archaeology in a series of case studies. For me, the connection is obvious at a visceral and deeply personal level. Generally speaking, I belong to Generation X—I even read the manual as soon as it came out, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture (1991). My formative youth experiences (high-school and college) fit comfortably within 1981-1991. More specifically, however, I grew up in cities. My attraction to the post-punk music and social culture began inColumbia, South Carolina, and flourished when my family moved to Philadelphia, which at the time was one of the most devastated cities in the East Coast. As a teenager immigrant, I never quite fit in main stream youth culture (Michael Jackson, proms, malls) but was attracted to the intellectual sophistication, public sphere and sensual character of the musical underground. The punk/post-punk scene manifested itself in multifarious musings and gatherings within the urban fabric. Punks squatted in the abandoned houses of West Philadelphia, where they also formed bands and performed; these were my friends, this was my dilapidated neighborhood. The movement’s superstars (like the Clash, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat) had such a limited audience that they performed at small venues, church basements, rotary clubs, bars, houses. There were no “concerts” only “shows.” To get the full historical flavor of the scene read, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001). Having grown up around an underground that lived and breathed the abandoned city, I hope to articulate what I can only describe as an archaeological. It is not a surprise to me that the punk ethos directly cultivated in me an archaeological predilection. The punk ethos has caused much conflict in its generation by its sheer negativity. How do you continue to fight the power when you accumulate power as a mature member of society. Professionally, I translated punk’s spirit of abjection into archaeology, which I practice academically. Thus, the case studies that follow are exercises in self-reflection if not self-validation. The archaeological manifestations of punk are clear to my friends who shared these formative experiences during our teens and twenties. Not surprisingly, many are now academics. More importantly, they have shaped their respective intellectual inquires according to some feature of this shared punk ethos (whatever it might be). I didn’t fully realize the poetic significance of this generational experience until reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005); of course, we all knew that we were part of something larger from Greil Marcus’, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1990). I owe many of my ideas to the critical discursive culture that the punk scene generated. I will probably bring their stories to bear, so I will enumerate those friends as a preliminary expression of gratitude. They are Jennie Uleman, Stephanie Camp, Elias Markolefas, Laurel Taylor, Emily Hage, Jules Dingle, Jenn Ball, Bill Caraher .